The last time the comedian/activist Jon Stewart was on Capitol Hill, Congress authorized additional compensation for 9/11 survivors. Will his latest efforts yield the same results?
Stewart’s advocacy began with a burn pit public service announcement in September 2019. “You deserve more than the country’s gratitude for your service,” he intoned into the camera. “You deserve full medical benefits to help you with your illness. Together we are going to work to get you justice and get you healed.” Stewart was recently on Capitol Hill, meeting with lawmakers like New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand. Representatives from Burn Pits 360 and other such groups joined the meetings, as well.
John Feal, one of these advocates, was also Stewart’s partner in the fight to extend benefits to 9/11 survivors in 2019. “If we have the money to send them to war, then we should have the money to take care of them when they come home sick and broken,” Feal insisted.
What are Burn Pits?
Military planners talk a lot about the tooth-to-tail (t2t) ratio. Frequently, the support troops outnumber the combat troops. That is especially true when armies invade foreign countries. This arrangement is usually bad for morale and bad for the bottom line. In volunteer armies, most people sign up expecting to see combat. Extended KP or convoy escort duty is probably not what they had in mind. Furthermore, the cost of such logistical services adds up quickly. So, for both these reasons, military planners look to cut corners whenever possible.
Waste disposal is a good example. Large numbers of troops generate lots of garbage. Dumping this refuse is local villages is no way to curry favor with the natives. Complex waste disposal systems are immobile and expensive. In other words, they are ill-suited for today’s lean, mobile armed forces.
Enter burn pits. Troopers dig large holes, place every conceivable refuse in the hole, douse the contents with jet fuel, throw in a lighted match, and walk away. Problem solved, right?
If used sporadically and temporarily, burn pits are an efficient way to dispose of garbage. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, this temporary solution became permanent. Now, thousands of returning veterans suffer from respiratory illnesses and even cancer. More on this below.
Burn Pits and Contractors
Private military contractors often bear the brunt of burn pit illnesses. Contractors, specifically KBR contractors, were normally responsible for maintaining burn pits. Therefore, they breathed a lot of toxic smoke. Given the materials burned, this toxic smoke included things like dioxin, arsenic, and heavy metals.
Additionally, private military contractors often serve as the tail in the aforementioned t2t ratio. Contractors are cooks, mechanics, morale officers, MPs, and the list goes on. These individuals spend an inordinate amount of time on base. As a result, they are also exposed to burn pit smoke.
Burn Pit Illnesses
Respiratory illnesses, such as constrictive bronchiolitis, are the most common burn pit health effect. CB blocks extremely narrow passageways in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe, even while at rest.
CB is a degenerative condition. In advanced stages, a risky lung transplant is the only available treatment. That is unfortunate because CB is also difficult to diagnose. Young people who are otherwise healthy almost never have this disease. The symptoms are easily confused with something like COPD or asthma. As a result, many CB victims do not get the treatment they need, and their condition deteriorates.
In most cases, injured contractors can choose their own doctors. So, they get treatment from physicians who know how to diagnose and treat complex lung diseases.
Burn pits have also been linked to cancer. The aforementioned heavy metals infect the body and cause tumors. Beau Biden, the son of the former Vice President, joined the JAG in 2003. Beginning in late 2008, Biden served a tour of duty in Iraq, where he won a bronze star. In 2010, doctors discovered the brain tumor which killed him five years later. His death was widely attributed to toxic materials in burn pit smoke.
Cancer and CB are both difficult to diagnose. Just like most doctors do not diagnose CB in young and healthy patients, most doctors do not diagnose cancer unless the patient has an obvious lifestyle or genetic risk factor. As a result, the disease progresses.
Cancer survival rates have increased significantly since the 1990s, but that improvement is contingent on early diagnosis. If that diagnosis does not occur, the survival rates drop dramatically.
Injury Compensation Available
Many veterans describe burn pit illnesses as this generation’s Agent Orange, and not just because the effects (cancer) are similar. For many years, the Veterans’ Administration denied that there was a connection between Agent Orange exposure and serious illness. The agency has largely reversed course now, but many Vietnam-era veterans and their survivors are still fighting for benefits.
So far, the VA has taken a similar stance with regard to burn pits. Generally, the agency insists that dust and other environmental factors are responsible for respiratory problems. And, the bureaucrats say that cancer cases are one-off anomalies.
The Department of Labor, which administers the Defense Base Act, has taken a different approach. A DOL administrative law judge recently held there was a connection between a condition called Deployment-Related Lung Disease (DRLD) and burn pit smoke. That is a big step toward full compensation for burn pit victims.
Generally, chronic illness treatments are quite expensive. That is especially true if the diagnosis is delayed and the disease progresses. Fortunately, the DBA pays for all reasonably necessary medical expenses, such as:
- Emergency care,
- Follow up visits,
- Medical devices,
- Prescription drugs,
- Medical-related travel, and
- Physical or occupational therapy.
That “reasonably necessary” phrase is often key. DBA insurance company lawyers often challenge things like cutting-edge medical treatment and extended physical therapy on the grounds that they are unnecessary. A DBA attorney advocates for victims in these situations to ensure they continue to get the treatment they need as opposed to the treatment the stingy insurance company will cover.
Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A. for more information about DBA lost wages benefits.