The House of Representatives passed the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021. But advocates see storm clouds ahead in the Senate.
“It’s very unfortunate that we’re asking the men and women to then prove to the VA that their illness is because of what our government put them through,” remarked the VFW’s Pat Murray. Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart is on a multi-city tour, trying to drum up support for the Honoring Our PACT Act. “These guys are trying to nitpick this thing to make it perfect. It’s never going to be perfect, but millions of veterans need the help,” he remarked.
Opposition to the bill usually centers on cost. Other lawmakers worry that the VA would be overwhelmed with new burn pit claims. VA Secretary Denis McDonough told a Senate committee that if this legislation passed, his agency would field an additional 2.5 million claims in the first three years alone.
Burn Pits in Southwest Asia
If you try to burn trash in your backyard, the police will be on you immediately. However, it is not only permissible to burn trash at overseas military bases. The DoD endorses and encourages this controversial waste disposal practice.
Actually, under the right circumstances, the technique is safe. When relatively small groups of soldiers are constantly on the move, it is much more efficient to burn trash rather than build a waste disposal infrastructure. The technique is also relatively sage. It is almost like throwing one day’s trash into a campfire and moving down the trail the next morning.
But the Global War on Terror in Southwest Asia was not under the right circumstances, at least after the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq bogged down. Army, Air Force, and other assets took up permanent residence in permanent camps. Yet they kept burning trash in the backyard. As a result, these servicemembers were exposed to a huge volume of toxic smoke. One Iraqi installation, Joint Base Balad, earned the unfortunate nickname of Camp Anaconda.
Usually, private military contractors are like the DoD’s office temps. They get all the assignments regular service members do not want. That list includes maintaining huge open-air burn pits. Therefore, contractors bore the brunt of the toxic exposure risk. That may be part of the reason why the Labor Department has authorized compensation for these victims. More on that below.
A few extremely rare burn pit exposure-related illnesses have made the VA’s presumptive condition list. There is a legal presumption that veterans with these conditions who were near burn pits are entitled to benefits. But in the vast majority of these cases, it is almost impossible to establish a service-related connection. Toxic particles are almost everywhere, and the VA usually blames breathing problems on dust and other environmental factors.
It is much easier to establish a service-related connection in a Defense Base Act claim. The Labor Department’s Administrative Law Judges who preside over appeals hearings usually take a wide range of factors into account, including:
- Location: Not all burn pits are created equally. Many burn pits are hub burn pits. Several camps in a relatively small area send most or all of their trash to a central burn pit. The toxic smoke these burn pits produced was incredibly thick.
- Proximity: As mentioned, private military contractors, specifically KBR contractors, often were assigned burn pit duty. The flimsy paper masks the DoD usually issued did not prevent these contractors from inhaling toxic smoke. Additionally, some particles are so tiny that they can absorb through the tear ducts or other tiny openings.
- Length: Although they are both toxic, there is a big difference between asbestos and toxic smoke. A single asbestos fiber could cause cancer or a serious breathing problem. Prolonged exposure to toxic smoke could cause similar issues.
Additionally, the burden of proof is lower in DBA claims. Instead of a direct service-related connection, injured private military contractors must only establish a nexus (indirect connection) between their deployment and their illness. Deployment Related Lung Disease usually is not a covered VA condition. But the DBA usually pays for DRLD, even if dust and particulate matter caused the victim’s illness. Contractors were only exposed to harsh environments because they were contractors.
Burn Pit Injuries
Brain cancer is perhaps the most serious illness that has been linked to burn pit smoke. This illness probably claimed the life of the President’s son.
Beau Biden served two tours of duty with the JAG Corps at Joint Base Balad, which was widely known for its large and dangerous burn pit, in 2008 and 2009. Immediately after he got home, he did not feel right. Four years later, in 2013, his doctors said he had stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme. He died in 2015, shortly after he turned 46. “He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go,” the elder Biden remarked in 2019. “And because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with stage 4 glioblastoma.”
The body cannot process heavy metals and other toxic particles in burn pit smoke. So, they accumulate and cause tumors to form. In addition to brain cancer, burn pits have been linked to pancreatic, lung, and other kinds of cancer.
Cancer treatment medical bills are extremely high. The Defense Base Act usually pays all reasonably necessary medical bills.
Burn pit exposure-related lung diseases include DRLD, which was mentioned above, and constrictive bronchiolitis, a much more serious breathing problem. Young people who are generally healthy almost never develop CB. But an alarming number of Southwest Asia veterans, regular servicemembers and private contractors alike, suffer from this disease. The toxic particles clog narrow breathing passages in the lungs. Therefore, shortness of breath is a problem, even while the victim is resting.
CB victims usually cannot work for more than a few hours a day. They simply cannot put forth the effort to walk across the room or sit upright in a chair. The DBA usually pays two-thirds of a victim’s lost wages in these situations. These benefits significantly ease the financial pain these families feel.
For more information about DBA procedure, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.