WASHINGTON — At first, Capt. Rebecca Selby noticed disconnected symptoms — a backache she attributed to an overaggressive workout, or stomach pain she thought was caused by spoiled food.
But within a few months of arriving at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, in April 2010, Selby, an Air Force logistician, could no longer explain away a growing list of ailments, including digestive problems, rashes and pain throughout her body that made it hard to walk.
Through several years of active-duty service and a previous deployment to Qatar, the Air National Guard officer had never experienced anything similar. The only culprit she or her doctors could suggest was the acrid smoke that filled her lungs most days as she drove past Bagram’s burn pit, where tons of trash was burned daily, releasing a toxic bouquet of chemicals.
But she can’t prove that’s what caused it. And three years later, although an electrical nerve stimulator threaded into her spinal column helps control pain, doctors still can’t fully explain the origin of Selby’s many symptoms either.
That uncertainty could someday be erased if bipartisan legislation introduced in the House on Wednesday becomes law. It would fund research and treatment of veterans’ illnesses believed to be caused by burn pits and other airborne toxic hazards.
The bill would provide $30 million a year between 2014 and 2019 to establish three study and treatment centers similar to current Centers of Excellence that focus on brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“America has sent some of the healthiest men and women to battle, only to see them come home struggling to breathe, sick with debilitating and life-threatening conditions,” one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said at a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., said the money would come from the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs budgets. Neither department, they feel, has yet moved aggressively to gain an understanding of the mysterious service-related ailments that many veterans of the recent wars describe.
“They have been slow in coming to the table,” he said.
The bill’s other original co-sponsors are Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
Bishop said that a lack of adequate attention in prior years means that many questions still linger about illnesses caused by chemical exposures in the first Gulf War and even the Vietnam War.
“We do not want the same time period to elapse for exposure to toxic burn pits,” he said. “We want to jump on this as quickly as we possibly can, and already I would say that we’re late.”
The news conference also featured family members of troops who died of mysterious illnesses following stints in Iraq or Afghanistan. Peter Sullivan, father of Marine Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, said his son desperately needed an institution with doctors fully dedicated to understanding his deployment-related illness.
“Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of expertise to be applied,” Sullivan said. “He expected to get a holistic diagnosis, a fresh look at the problems that had been baffling his doctors for some time.”
The younger Sullivan died in 2009.
Nick McCormick, a legislative associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Congress has been making strides to deal with the issue, including a law that took effect this year that requires the VA to establish a registry of troops exposed to burn pits. The next step is to aggressively study and treat the illnesses that could become more prevalent in coming years, he said Thursday.
“This issue is not new to us,” he said. “We know it is coming down the line.”
For Selby, the effects of her toxic exposures already seem to be in full force. She lives in Ocean City, N.J., with her mother, who retired as a teacher to act as a caregiver.
Now, she awaits a decision on her level of disability that will determine if she can medically retire from the Air Force. But she’d like nothing more than to be able to continue in the Air Force, she said.
“I volunteered for this deployment, and I’m one of those crazy people that actually loves being deployed,” Selby said. “If I could wave that magic wand and be better and be back in Afghanistan as a servant of America, I would be there.”
Worse than the pain, she said, have been hints from several civilian doctors that she is imagining her symptoms, or even faking them to avoid service. A scientific explanation for what has happened to her and thousands of other troops would put an end to such insinuations, she said.
“I just hope they’ll be able to put that information out that explains what we’re going through,” she said. “We want to serve the country but we’re just too sick to do it.”