Health Care

Open Burn Pits Made Tens of Thousands of Vets Sick, and the VA Isn’t Working

Soldiers watch garbage burn in a burn pit in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2013. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)
The system needs an overhaul.

The recent Democratic debates covered a range of topics, from the economy to foreign policy to Trump-is-a-racist to “dark psychic forces.” In the midst of the onslaught of hyperbolic rhetoric, only one candidate spoke about the military: Representative Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii. She was the only one talking about veterans and active-duty service members in a sincere, meaningful way. She’s also one of the main sponsors of legislation that will finally begin to address an issue that is extremely personal to me: the myriad lung conditions caused by exposure to open burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In March of 2007, I returned home from a six-and-a-half-month deployment at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, as an extremely fit 35-year-old Marine captain. Within a month I started coughing and developed pneumonia, which was a first for me. Once I recovered, after nearly a month, I was still coughing, and I knew something was wrong. Over the next two and a half years, in addition to suffering chronic sinus infections and bronchitis, I underwent a complete battery of pulmonary-function tests, blood work, and exams, until finally a VA pulmonologist determined that I had suffered permanent damage to the small airways in my lungs. He called it the “chronic bronchitis type of COPD” and said it was likely a result of whatever I was exposed to in Iraq. It was irreversible but manageable. I separated from the Marine Corps in 2009 and made the rookie mistake of assuming that my lung condition was included in my disability rating from the VA. It was not.

Two years ago, the issue of burn pits — used at camps and bases to dispose of anything and everything, including wood, plastics, etc. — hit my radar. I researched it, and the more I learned, the more I became convinced that the burn pit at Camp Fallujah was the source of my problems, as I’d been completely healthy before my deployment. I reached out to the VA and was told to register for the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which as of this writing has 182,282 participants. I then discovered that my lung condition, the most serious disability I have, was not covered adequately, and I filed a supplemental claim with the VA. What followed was a 15-month-long battle that I chronicled in a series of columns. (I strongly recommend you read all three, especially part 3, which outlines how veterans can get their conditions covered and the specific criteria they need to meet.)

This is an issue that doesn’t get nearly the attention or the hard work in Congress that it deserves. There are countless veterans out there right now suffering in silence, possibly dying (some already have) or having their claims denied by the VA. Once denied, they have nowhere else to go or turn to for additional help, and they just give up.

Representative Gabbard has taken a first step with the Burn Pits Accountability Act (BPAA). I was informed by her office that the BPAA was passed as part of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel’s mark-up of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate then included it as an amendment in the committee version of its bill. Before this becomes too much like an episode of Schoolhouse Rock, here is where it stands: The differences between the two bills will have to be resolved in a cross-chamber conference committee, but since the BPAA is in both, it should remain intact and become law.

But here’s the real problem: All the BPAA does is “require the Department of Defense to evaluate and track the exposure of U.S. service members and veterans to open burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals.” It does not guarantee coverage or simplify the VA’s nightmarish, convoluted, byzantine claims process.

When I was going through my exasperating battle with the VA, I was informed that the diagnostic code that the VA uses was written in 1945. An official at the VA told me, “If you want to really help, try to get Congress to rewrite the code to make our jobs easier.” The people at the VA want to help, but their hands are tied by bureaucratic red tape, and that tape has the very real effect of denying claims to service members who deserve coverage as well as better treatment. If Congress really wants to help, it should force the VA to expedite a revision of the diagnostic code, a revision that was begun piecemeal in 2009. At this pace, veterans who are suffering and dying will obtain disability coverage by the year 2100.

Since I started bringing attention to this issue, I’ve had countless veterans and active-duty service members reach out to me and share their stories of frustration, anger, and sadness, a sadness instilled by a feeling of abandonment by the same government they enthusiastically served. It is infuriating when I hear stories of healthy men and women who suddenly contracted illnesses — in some cases, cancer — for which they had no preexisting symptoms or family history. The common thread for them all was a call to serve in a combat zone in defense of our great nation. Unfortunately, the combat zone followed them home, and for many, their battle is not over.

Our veterans willingly sacrificed to serve. The least we can do is ensure that they are taken care of when they return home and move on to the next phase in their lives. They’ve earned it — and the pact between the country and those who serve demands it.

Semper Fidelis.

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