What to Know
- In 2014, Congress mandated that the VA create a burn pit registry.
- More than 157,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have reported symptoms on the voluntary registry.
- More than 9,600 vets have submitted claims for illnesses they blame on burn pits, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In the middle of the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, garbage disposal on American military bases was historically a simple thing.
"Anything and everything burned in a burn pit — from mail to dead animals to anything," Ryan Conklin, a former soldier, says.
Asbestos and other chemicals? Yes, retired Army Lt. Col. Dan Brewer, says.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Medical waste? Yes again, according to a doctor now researching the effects of burn pit dust.
"It was always burning, always black smoke coming of there," another veteran, Michael Ray, says.
Several former soldiers and medical doctors spoke to NBC10 Investigators about their experiences with burn pits: large holes dug by crews who then filled the pits with trash and lit them on fire with jet fuel. For many soldiers deployed to the desert and living on bases adjacent to the debris disposal, the billowing black smoke was just part of their daily life.
Some now say exposure to these pits has adversely affected their long term health. And thousands of soldiers who served overseas have now submitted claims that blame burn pits for chronic illnesses.
A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement, "VA doctors treat all manner of Veterans health issues and the department continually looks at medical research and follows trends related to medical conditions affecting Veterans."
Army National Guard officer Cindy Aman is one of the former soldiers who remembers the smoke, the smell, the coughing.
She served in Iraq in the early 2000s. Once she returned home to Delaware, she began to notice new symptoms: shortness of breath, fatigue. More than two years later, she was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease called constrictive bronchiolitis.
She blames it on her near-constant exposure to burn pits, and told NBC10 that her fight for care has been "the longest journey ever."
Aman is among more than 9,600 vets who have submitted claims for illnesses they blame on burn pits, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Less than a quarter of them have, like Aman, have had their claims granted as of Aug. 30, 2018, the VA said.
In 2014, Congress mandated that the VA create a burn pit registry. So far, more than 157,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have reported symptoms on the voluntary registry. But the VA still says it isn’t ready to place all blame on the pits.
“There are still questions that we don’t have good answers for,” Dr. Drew Helmer, director of the Army-Related Illness and Injury Study Center for the VA in East Orange, New Jersey.
But Aman thinks the clock is ticking on veterans’ health.
“They’re saying it’s, you know, the new Agent Orange," she said, referring to an herbicide used during the Vietnam War to clear jungles that has since been linked to leukemia, lymphoma, and cancer in exposed veterans.
"Agent Orange took 35 years to have recognition," Aman said. "Here we don’t – I’m not waiting 35 years. God, we have veterans that are too sick to wait for 35 years. That’s not fair."
Melissa Bryant, who works with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, said her group is pushing a bill called the Burn Pit Accountability Act – legislation that would hold the Department of Defense accountable for the health of its service members before they leave the military.
“Never before has the DoD looked to be accountable for the toxic exposures that we face,” said Bryant. “We’re already 17 years into this. So something’s gotta give.”
The VA said in a statement from a spokesman that every claim is "will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence available."
"VA has granted service connection for various ailments associated with burn pits, and does so on an individual, case-by-case basis after review of a Veteran’s case," department spokesman Rick Fox said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The Veterans Affairs Department's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry is available online at https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/burnpits/registry.asp