The House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted along strict party lines to advance the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021 to the House floor.
A Senate committee approved a similar, but narrower, bill a few weeks earlier. If approved, both measures would make about 3.5 million veterans eligible for medical care and cash benefits. Both proposals also include relief for Vietnam-era veterans, as well as those who helped clean up some toxic waste sites. Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) predicted prompt approval, since “we have momentum on our side now.”
Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) said Republicans on the VA Committee opposed the bill because the Biden Administration had not endorsed it and there were no provisions regarding cost or other matters. “I wish I could support [this bill], but the fact is, we simply do not have the information we need to report the bill out of committee,” he remarked.
What are Burn Pits?
The 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states was over in — wait for it — six days. The 1991 Persian Gulf War did not last much longer than that. American planners assumed that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would follow the same pattern. Therefore, no one paid too much attention to housekeeping issues, like waste disposal.
These planners were partially right. An American-lead coalition quickly overwhelmed Saddam Hussein’s army. Then, things went off the rails.
Iraqis were largely happy to be rid of Hussein and largely resentful of Americans, whom they saw as foreign invaders. So, many of them did what many of us would do if we believed our homes and families were threatened. They took up arms to defend them.
Suddenly, minor logistical issues, like waste disposal, became a major problem. Yet for much of the Iraq War, the DoD permitted the use of burn pits.
A burn pit is basically, well, a burn pit. Some people, who are normally contractors, use a backhoe or other large equipment to dig a very big hole. Then, contractors dump all base garbage into that hole. Then, without covering it up or taking other protective measures, they douse the trash with jet fuel and throw in a match. Since garbage piles up seven days a week, the burn pit fires rage 24/7/365.
Burn pits are an ideal solution for small-unit actions or for an army on the move. Before the pit gets too large or the smoke gets too thick, the soldiers move on. But the Iraq War was largely static after the first few weeks. Installations grew and grew. Joint Base Balad, one of the largest military installations in Iraq, housed some 36,000 servicemembers and contractors.
Soldiers nicknamed JBB “Camp Anaconda,” largely because of the installation’s huge burn pit. About 250 tons of garbage every day went into this open-air burn pit. That’s about three times more than Juneau, Alaska’s daily trash volume. JBB and Juneau had about the same population. Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis sounded the alarm in 2006. “In my professional opinion, there is an acute health hazard for individuals. There is also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke,” he wrote in a memo. But no one in a position of power listened.
Burn Pit Injuries
Burn pits have been linked to a number of health problems. Various forms of cancer and breathing difficulties are probably the most serious illnesses.
U.S. President Joe Biden has personally felt the impact of burn pit-related cancer. Beau Biden served two tours of duty with the JAG Corps at JBB 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 waste in burn pits includes plastic water bottles, styrofoam cups, and other materials which contain high levels of heavy metals and other hazardous substances. The body cannot process these particles through its own waste disposal system. So, the build up, often in the brain. Other burn pit exposure victims develop cancer in other parts of their bodies.
As for breathing problems, constrictive bronchiolitis is a lung disease that young people who are generally healthy almost never develop. Yet a large number of returning Iraq veterans struggle with CB. This disease tightens very small air passageways deep inside the lungs. Many victims show almost no symptoms, other than general chest tightness. Furthermore, many diagnostic tests miss CB, because the evidence is so slight and doctors usually are not looking for signs of CB.
As a result, these victims often go undiagnosed until their CB reaches an advanced stage. At that point, a radical and risky lung transplant is the only possibly effective treatment. Even then, the odds are not very good. The toxins which initially caused the disease probably remain in the body.
Burn Pit Injury Compensation
The Veterans Administration has consistently maintained that smoke, dust, and other such mundane environmental conditions are responsible for the aforementioned illnesses. We honestly are not sure how non-toxic dust and smoke could possibly cause brain cancer, but that is the company line.
The dust/lung disease link is at least somewhat plausible. However, many parts of Iraq, such as the area in and around JBB, are rocky or mountainous. Mesopotamia (the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where Baghdad and many other population centers lie) is rather swampy.
An Administrative Law Judge for the Labor Department, which administers the Defense Base Act, cited these geographic features in a decision awarding benefits to a morale officer who developed Deployment-Related Lung Disease (DRLD) while she was stationed at JBB. That decision opens the door for contractors who now suffer from breathing problems, cancer, or any other condition connected to toxic burn pit smoke.
Generally, any contractor who was injured in an overseas war zone is eligible for lost wage replacement, medical bill payment, and other DBA benefits. Let’s break these elements down.
The contractor could be a foreign national. These individuals often serve as construction workers or interpreters. The contracting party could be the DoD, State Department, or any other U.S. government agency. An overseas location is usually anyplace outside the 50 states. Guantanamo Bay and Guam are overseas locations for DBA purposes, even though these places are U.S. territories. Finally, a war zone is any territory with any U.S. military presence.
For more details about the available benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.