Key lawmakers joined with a nationwide advocacy group to rally support for the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which already enjoys broad bipartisan support.
IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) joined with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), urging lawmakers to fast-track the Burn Pits Accountability Act. This proposal, which has 147 co-sponsors, would provide medical evaluations for burn pit victims. Over two dozen veterans and military organizations have also endorsed the BPAA. “Too many of our post 9/11 veterans, after facing prolonged exposure to toxic burn pits, are suffering from debilitating and deadly illnesses,” Rep. Gabbard declared. “This is still not being addressed, even after how we have seen our Vietnam veterans suffered from Agent Orange exposure.”
Participants at the December 2018 press conference also criticized the Veterans Administration for its “slow, insufficient, and incomplete” response to the GI Bill payments snafu.
At least in this realm, some lawmakers seemed more concerned about the plight of returning private military contractors than their former employer does.
In a brief, lawyers for Kellogg, Brown, and Root urged the Supreme Court not to take up a burn pit appeal from the Fourth Circuit. Earlier, that court threw out an injury lawsuit, ruling that the political question doctrine immunized KBR. This doctrine normally only applies to government entities. Nevertheless, KBR argued that the doctrine should protect it because the contractor was simply following the U.S. Army’s orders.
Separation of powers prevents courts from second-guessing military decisions, according to KBR’s attorneys.
What are Burn Pits?
When the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars started in 2001 and 2003, international response was mostly tepid. No one really opposed them, but no one really supported them either. So, nearly all the invading forces were American.
The combination of a sudden influx of people and a rugged desert environment produced and enormous amount of waste. If there is no other available disposal method, and there was not, military manuals authorize combat units to temporarily use burn pits. In Southwest Asia, “temporary” turned out to be several years.
KBR contractors were mostly responsible for building and maintaining burn pits. Contractors use excavation equipment to dig a huge hole. Then, they fill the hole with every conceivable type of refuse. After dousing the contents with jet fuel, they light a match and throw it in. The open-air pit burns waste 24/7/365.
Burn pits were pretty much everywhere. The largest one was probably at Joint Base Balad (a/k/a Camp Anaconda) in Iraq. The fires burned from 2003 until 2009. According to the Army, the particulate matter from the billowing smoke contributed to “long-term health effects,” particularly if the victim had a preexisting condition or a genetic propensity toward certain kinds of illness.
Beau Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, served one tour in Iraq with the JAG. He returned stateside in 2009. Shortly thereafter, he developed brain cancer. Mr. Biden passed away in 2015. As there was no family history of cancer and no other obvious risk factors, speculation abounds that burn pit exposure caused his cancer.
What Illnesses do Burn Pits Cause?
Burn pit smoke contains a vast array of harmful particulate matter, including many heavy metals. Moreover, burn pits contained Styrofoam cups, rubber tires, and other items that are illegal to burn in the United States. Some specific burn pit illnesses include:
- Cancer: People develop cancer when cells mutate and divide too quickly. The excess cells often form malignant tumors. Chemotherapy drugs kill fast-dividing cells, which is why many cancer patients lose their hair. Genetic predisposition can cause mutations, as do some toxic substances, such as cigarette smoke and other particulate matter.
- Throat Infections: Burn pit smoke basically causes chemical burns inside the throat. Severe throat infections make it impossible to perform daily activities. These infections are also very difficult to treat.
- Kidney Disease: The toxins in burn pit smoke also affect kidney function. Generally, this disease is quite aggressive and difficult to diagnose and treat.
- Constrictive Bronchiolitis: This disease, which is also called popcorn lung, constricts narrow bronchial passages in the lung. CB is almost unheard of in young people who are otherwise healthy, such as returning war veterans. CB has an extremely poor prognosis. Steroids can slow the progress of the disease, but not reverse it. A radical lung transplant is about the only treatment option.
More recently, burn pits have also been linked to high blood pressure and other kinds of lung disease.
The Veterans Administration has steadfastly denied that there is a link between burn pits and serious illness. Instead, the VA says the desert climate is mostly to blame for lung problems and most victims with other illnesses probably had preexisting conditions.
This denial flies in the face of current science. There is a presumption in most states that firefighters who contract certain illnesses, such as CB and cancer, got sick because of toxic smoke exposure. An attorney can use this same argument to obtain compensation for burn pit victims.
How can DBA Benefits Help?
The Defense Base Act is a 1941 law that provides injury compensation to private military contractors who were injured overseas. Burn pit victims badly need its financial benefits. Successful treatments for cancer, severe lung disease, and other serious illnesses are available. However, these treatments are incredibly time-consuming and take several months or years to work. Since the victim is out of work for so long, the victim needs money to pay everyday expenses.
Fortunately, the DBA offers generous wage replacement benefits. The exact benefits vary depending on the type of disability:
- Temporary Total Disability: Most victims begin in the TTD category. They are utterly unable to work, but with proper treatment, they will get better. These victims normally receive two-thirds of their average weekly wages for the duration of their disabilities.
- Temporary Partial Disability: After a few months, many victims can go back to work on a part-time or light-duty basis. TPD victims are entitled to two-thirds of the difference between their old and new salaries.
- Permanent Partial Disability: Some victims lose eyes or have injuries that never heal completely. These individuals usually receive a lump-sum compensation based on the percentage of disability and nature of the injury.
- Permanent Total Disability: A few victims are never able to work again. “Disability” is a legal term and not a medical one. The word means different things in different contexts. For example, a paralyzed soldier may be permanently disabled, but a paralyzed computer programmer can probably still work.
Lost wages benefits are usually retroactive to the date of injury.
Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, PA to learn more about Defense Base Act claims procedure.