The President became emotional when he spoke about the PACT Act in his home state of Delaware. “I made it real clear to the United States Congress that if they didn’t pass this damn burn pit bill, I was going to go on holy war,” he remarked.
Biden made these comments at a New Castle National Guard and Reserve center named for his deceased son, Beau. The younger Biden served in the JAG in Iraq and died of brain cancer several months after he came home. His father has consistently blamed burn pit smoke for the illness that killed his son. President Biden recounted how many troops came home from war suffering from headaches, dizziness, and cancer. “I remember Beau calling and saying he collapsed on a run,” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s personal to all of us,” he added. “It’s not unique to me and my family.”
In the early going, logistical and other issues have plagued the PACT Act. The VA has screened over 730,000 applicants and only processed 2,500 claims. Biden does not want veterans to give up. “The benefits are real,” he stressed. “There’s no place I’d rather be today to get the message out about the PACT Act than here in this particular facility,” he concluded.
Burn Pits in Southwest Asia
As long as they are low volume, temporary waste disposal methods, burn pits are safe. In fact, campers use them almost every night. They routinely burn a few Styrofoam cups and other refuse in the nightly campfire as they sing endless choruses of Kum Ba Yah. Since the volume is low and the campers probably move on the next morning, there is no hazard.
Burn pits in Southwest Asia were not low-volume or temporary. Instead of a few plastic water bottles, all the base’s refuse got tossed in the fire. That included:
- Styrofoam cups,
- Medical waste,
- Rubber tires,
- Metal vehicle parts,
- Human waste, and
- Defective ordnance.
Additionally, these huge burn pits were permanent waste disposal solutions. Military planners expected American forces to race across the desert and quickly subdue Iraqi forces, as they did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. No one was prepared for a long insurgency.
Therefore, servicemembers and contractors exposed to toxic burn pit smoke did not inhale a few toxic fumes on a one-time basis. They inhaled lots of toxic fumes day in and day out. Many veterans describe columns of smoke almost like the oil well fires that Saddam Hussein lit in the aforementioned Persian Gulf War.
Contractors, mostly KBR contractors, bore the brunt of this toxic exposure risk. Contractors are a lot like temporary workers. Contractors get all the assignments no one else wants. These assignments included filling, incinerating, and maintaining burn pits. Other than perhaps a flimsy face mask, these contractors had no personal protection.
This additional risk may be the reason the Department of Labor, which administers the Defense Base Act, began awarding burn pit benefits long before the VA even considered such a move. More on that below.
Burn Pit Injuries
The body cannot remove toxic particles. Since these toxins never leave the body, they cause a host of serious illnesses which are difficult and expensive to treat.
Brain cancer, which claimed Beau Biden’s life, is one example. The cancer misdiagnosis rate is rather high. Most doctors do not think that patients without any obvious risk factors, like a genetic history or a dangerous lifestyle that includes excessive smoking or drinking, can develop this disease. So, by the time doctors identify the disease, cancer treatments are more aggressive, and therefore more expensive.
Constrictive bronchitis, a very serious breathing illness, is a similar example. Young people who are generally healthy, like most veterans and contractors who served in the Global War on Terror campaigns, almost never develop CB. So, once again, the misdiagnosis rate is high. As doctors try to figure out what’s wrong, tiny yet critical air passages in the lungs get smaller and smaller. Many of these passageways are smaller than a pencil’s tip to begin with.
As this disease reaches advanced stages, the only treatment option is a radical and risky lung transplant.
These diseases are just two of the more severe examples. Other common burn pit exposure injuries include:
- Skin and stomach cancer,
- Central nervous system issues,
- Reduced kidney function,
- Autoimmune diseases,
- Skin lesions,
- Crohn’s Disease,
- Throat infections, and
- Multiple sclerosis.
All these conditions are disabling, at least to an extent. People with such conditions have trouble functioning at school, work, home, or anywhere else.
Injury Compensation Available
For veterans, the new PACT Act creates a presumptive service-related connection for a handful of the most serious burn pit illnesses. Otherwise, applicants must prove a service-related connection. This link is very difficult to establish in environmental poisoning cases, since these toxins could come from almost anywhere.
Additionally, VA lawyers have successfully fought Gulf War Syndrome claims for decades. GWS is similar to burn pit sickness in many ways.
In the mid-2010s, a Department of Labor administrative law judge ruled that contractors could suffer from burn pit-related illnesses in some situations. That case is valid precedent today for other former private military contractors who seek compensation for such illnesses.
A deployment-related connection may be the most important component of a legal claim. According to the Supreme Court, contractors must only show a nexus (indirect connection) between their illnesses or injuries and their deployments. That’s a lower standard of proof than a service-related connection.
A current diagnosis is almost as important. VA disability applicants must see military-affiliated Compensation and Pension (C&P) doctors who may or may not pinpoint a burn pit illness, mostly for political reasons. Injured private military contractors may choose their own doctors, including specialists. A Defense Base Act lawyer usually connects victims with doctors who charge nothing upfront.
DBA benefits are available if the contractor was injured in an overseas war zone. Overseas territories are not limited to foreign territories. Contractors who served in places like Guam and Guantanamo Bay are eligible for injury compensation benefits. Additionally, a “war zone” is any area that has an official U.S. military presence. A Marine guard at an embassy will suffice.
U.S. citizenship or residency is not a necessary qualification. In fact, many injured contractors are foreign nationals, often people who served as interpreters.
For more information about these benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.