Lawmakers Revive Anti-Burn Pit Initiative

Lawmakers Revive Anti-Burn Pit Initiative

The House of Representatives recently approved the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act on a vote of 377 to 20. The measure would ban burn pits in Afghanistan and elsewhere, while also earmarking $5 million for further study.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-CA) was one of the bill’s primary co-sponsors. He introduced the legislation in 2017. These pits burned all types of army waste. That could be a significant amount, as many large military bases in Iraq were roughly as big as mid-sized American cities.

Subsequently, senators passed the measure, as well.

In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs suddenly shut down the “burn pit registry” after thousands of veterans shared their injury stories.

The Connection Between War and Disease

Throughout history, non-combat casualties have always been significant. Whenever large groups of armed people gather, there is always a high potential for accidents and other events. Disease has long been a problem, as well, specifically with regard to sanitation conditions.

Casualty figures from the American Civil War are spotty at best, especially from the Southern side. In action reports, commanders often exaggerated casualty figures to make their exploits appear more daring. Furthermore, many records were not kept or are no longer available. However, it is widely believed that disease killed more Civil War soldiers than bullets. Most of these diseases were sanitation-related conditions, like dysentery and infectious diseases.

By the time World War II came around, penicillin and other advances had sharply limited the spread of infectious diseases. Sanitation was not as much of a problem either, as armies in Europe and the Pacific were almost constantly on the move. However, there were some issues with non-combat injuries, including:

  • Frostbite: This condition is hardly ever life-threatening, but it is almost always life-altering. Even brief exposure to cold may change the skin, nails, muscles, and bones. Frostbite also usually has vascular and neurological effects. Moreover, skin cancer sometimes develops in frostbite scars.
  • Mustard Gas: None of the belligerents used poison gas during combat. However, in the early 1940s, some 60,000 American soldiers “volunteered” for mustard gas experiments. Most of these tests were quite mild, but some involved full-body exposure to mustard gas with only highly experimental equipment for protection.
  • Nuclear Weapons: Many soldiers were in Nevada and the Pacific between 1945 and 1962, when the U.S. regularly conducted atmospheric nuclear tests. Other soldiers assisted cleanup efforts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where they were exposed to nuclear fallout.

Altogether, these and other diseases accounted for only a handful of American casualties. However, there were other similar issues in other armies. For example, a still-mysterious condition known as gas gangrene killed at least 100,000 German soldiers in the last century.

During the Vietnam War, the armed forces used over 13 million gallons of Agent Orange, a dioxin-based defoliant. Over 2.8 million servicemembers may have been exposed to Agent Orange, as they were either in-country or in offshore ships at the time. Moreover, the Red Cross estimates that Agent Orange may have affected three million Vietnamese people.

For years, the Veterans Administration denied the link between Agent Orange and serious illness, including cancer and birth defects. The VA still denies the existence of Gulf War Syndrome, an illness that affected thousands of servicemembers in the 1991 Gulf War. Instead, the VA claims that the desert environment is responsible for respiratory and other illnesses. However, as his army retreated, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein set fire to many Kuwaiti oil fields, resulting in nightmarish and heart-wrenching scenes like this one.

All this discussion leads us to burn pits. Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, military commanders ordered contractors to dig huge pits, fill them with every kind of refuse, douse the contents with jet fuel, and set them afire. Joint Base Balad (a/k/a Camp Anaconda) was one of the most notorious spots. According to one witness, “The ash rained down on us like snowflakes – not only on US troops, but also Iraqi detainees and Iraqi correctional officers. There were flakes of ash the size of half a sheet of notebook paper.”

These flakes contained high levels of toxic substances, including heavy metals, plastics, and medical waste.

How Burn Pits Affect Health

Beau Biden, the son of former Vice-President Joe Biden, may be the most recognizable burn pit casualty. The JAG officer served in Iraq between 2008 and 2009. During that period, he briefly returned home to see his dad take the oath of office in January 2009. While there, doctors believe he developed brain cancer as a result of exposure to toxic burn pit smoke. Beau began battling the disease in 2010 and passed away in 2015.

Alas, Beau Biden is definitely not the only burn pit cancer victim. Many other burn pit victims developed deployment-related lung disease. The most frightening component of DRLD may be Constrictive Bronchiolitis. CB is an extremely serious lung disease which does not show up on many diagnostic tests.

The Labor Department, which administers the Defense Base Act, recently concluded that there is a connection between burn pits and adverse health events.

Injury Compensation Available

The Defense Base Act is a 1941 law which protects overseas private military contractors. If these individuals are injured or killed while serving overseas, they or their families may be entitled to significant compensation and top medical care. Both these elements are extremely important in cancer and CB cases.

Cancer treatments are incredibly expensive. Costs like $10,000 a month are not unusual. But without early and aggressive treatment, cancer fatality rates are much higher. So, the DBA gives families the financial resources they need to fight this disease. That could make a tremendous difference in the life of your family.

Moreover, the DBA allows most victims to choose their own doctors. This choice makes a difference in difficult-to-diagnose conditions. Victims may seek expert treatment and not just the doctor for whom the insurance company is willing to pay.

To get more information about the compensation available in DBA cases, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen & Frankel, P.A.