NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Before he got sick, before the tremors, memory lapses and surgeries, Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Lamprecht guarded his buddies from an Apache attack helicopter, with Hellfire missiles at his fingertips.
The 40-year-old Poquoson native completed four combat deployments from 2003 to 2010: three to Iraq and one to Afghanistan .
He'd go back tomorrow if he could.
The narrow front seat of the lethal gunship was his second home, surrounded by laser range finders and target designators, a video monitor near his lap, a side-mounted helmet camera that offered a view similar to a two-way mirror.
That kind of multitasking and razor-sharp communication would be impossible today. Lamprecht can't feel much below his knees, and the simple act of standing up can make him dizzy.
"Sometimes my feet don't do what I want them to," he said. "I'll stammer my tongue. I know what I want to say, but my tongue just vapor-locks and I won't make the word."
He can't blame the Taliban or al-Qaida, and it wasn't battle stress or nerves.
His worst enemy turned out to be burning garbage.
Multiple tours, untold fallout
Throughout his tours, Lamprecht was stationed next to burn pits that the military employed to dispose of everything from human feces to batteries to computer hardware. His second tour was at Balad Air Base, Iraq. His third was at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq.
Hundreds of personnel say they have been sickened by toxic fumes and debris from these pits, and Lamprecht is pretty sure he's one of them.
"There was particulate matter," he said. "There was invisible dust falling from the sky, and it was in our skin and in our water, and we're bathing in it. And then it's in our food. We brushed our teeth with it. We washed our hair with it. I mean, we lived in that filth."
On Thursday, President Barack Obama signed into law a wide-ranging veterans bill that includes the creation of a registry for burn pit victims. It will create a list similar to the Agent Orange and Gulf War registries to help patients, doctors and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs determine to what extent air pollution caused by open air burn pits has led to health problems.
Today, Lamprecht's list of ailments reads like a tour through a medical dictionary: tuberculosis, dysentery, acid reflux, hemorrhoids that required surgery, infected cuts, cysts, nerve problems caused debilitating numbness, night sweats, lapses of memory, joint problems and tremors.
So far, he has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which is characterized by long-term pain throughout the body, including the joints and muscles. He also has isolated nerve damage associated with neuropathy. He has bouts of tremors because of Parkinson's-like symptoms.
Now stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., he has begun the process of medically retiring from the Army. No longer able to fly an aircraft, he is pursuing an aeronautics degree in hopes of landing a ground job with a medevac company.
Because he loved the Army, because his father and grandfather were combat aviators before him, Lamprecht stuck it out as long as he could. His wife, Donna, teaches at a community college at Fort Campbell and is attuned to Army culture. She understood how her husband felt.
"The soldier's mentality is to push through," she said, "so he would continue to go back and fight."
Jeff acknowledged he didn't tell his doctors everything. The following passage is from a journal he kept to document his many health problems. It was written as he reflected on his many years of service.
"The simple fact of the matter is that I save lives. This is not to say I am a war lover, for that cannot be further from the truth . . . I am the penultimate sheepdog, hunting the horrible things that go bump in the night. To keep doing that, I hid most of these things from the doctors over the years to keep my deployment and flight status. But now, I am done."
The prospect of developing Parkinson's Disease is probably what worries him the most. Death would be preferable to dementia.
"Put me in the ground," he said. "Don't worry. I'll be in there with good people. But to lose my mind, and worse, to have my children watch . . . that's what bothers me."
Military's evolving rules
The scope of burn pits and the number of military personnel potentially affected were partially documented in an August 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office. It recommended improvements in how the U.S. handled solid waste disposal in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The GAO found it was difficult to determine the number of burn pits at any given time. Virtually every military installation used them, but the number has fluctuated as the U.S. has pivoted from Iraq to Afghanistan, the GAO said.
In November 2009, Afghanistan had 50 burn pits. That rose to 184 in April 2010 and 251 in August that year. By comparison, Iraq had 67 burn pits in November 2009, then 52 in April 2010 and only 22 in August, according to the report.
The pits were seen as one way to deal with the 10 pounds of solid waste generated per soldier per day, GAO said. That included food, electronics, appliances and furniture discarded by hundreds of thousands of troops. Troop levels in Iraq peaked at roughly 160,000 in 2008, the Congressional Research Service has reported. In Afghanistan, troop levels rose to around 100,000 at their peak, according to other media estimates.
Did the burn pits definitively cause problems? Responses from the military have varied, but they do indicate a growing sensitivity to the issue.
In May 2008, Defense Department health officials said emissions from the largest burn pit in Iraq did not indicate an elevated long-term health risk. In April 2009,the Pentagon "clarified this position" and said burn pit emissions may cause problems for service members with pre-existing health problems or genetic factors, the GAO study said.
Later in 2009, U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, issued comprehensive guidance on solid waste management. And in 2010, the Pentagon told combatant commanders "to make a formal determination that no alternative disposal method is feasible" before burning potentially hazardous waste in open-air pits.
An April 2011 memo from the Army cited the possibility of increased health risks at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. A burn pit there sent plumes of smoke over the base, which had up to 40,000 troops and contractors. Last year, a Defense Department official agreed that elevated levels of contaminants were a concern, but the burn pit was not the source.
Contractor at fault?
In April 2010, a civil lawsuit was filed in Maryland federal court against KBR, Inc., a Houston-based contractor paid to operate and maintain the burn pits. The suit consolidates complaints that span 42 states and include more than 200 individuals.
Susan Burke, a Washington attorney who represents the plaintiffs, said the mega-lawsuit began with a single complaint from an individual who stood next to a burn pit and watched a dog drag a human arm from the smoke.
From that first lawsuit, she said the complaints poured in.
"People read about the original case," she said. "We didn't do anything to get the word out."
KBR is a global engineering, chemical and services company. It provides a long list of services to a variety of clients, ranging from major construction projects advanced chemical engineering to logistical support. It is a former subsidiary of defense giant Haliburton, Inc., which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The company has sought dismissal of the case. In a court appearance last year as reported in Marine Corps Times, the company said it deserves the same immunity as government agencies and employees because it worked alongside troops in a combat zone.
They also said it should not be held responsible for problems resulting from military decisions on where to place burn pits and how to operate them.
The suit has not yet been resolved.
Although the military's guidance on burn pits has evolved over time, the lawsuit maintains that KBR should still be held liable for health problems relating to burn pits because it participated in something called the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, or LOGCAP. The program spells out rules for operating the burn pits, and it results in the issuance of various task orders and letters of direction that get into further details, the suit says.
Standard operating procedure in LOGCAP "makes clear that protecting human health is the paramount operating principle," according to the suit, and mandates that the contractor "comply with the standard that is the more protective of human health or the environment" when confronted with conflicting requirements.
By participating in LOGCAP, the company "agrees that it will dispose of all waste in a fashion that minimizes safety risks, environmental effects, and human exposures to toxic fumes."
Given that, the suit alleges that KBR violated the rules when it came to what was disposed of in the pits.
"Every type of waste imaginable was and is burned in these pits," the suit states, "including trucks, tires, lithium batteries, Styrofoam, paper, wood, rubber, petroleum-oil-lubricating products, metals, hydraulic fluids, munitions boxes, medical waste, biohazard materials (including human corpses), medical supplies (including those used during smallpox inoculations), paints, solvents, asbestos insulation, items containing pesticides . . .".
Burke said the company didn't follow the rules when it came to operation of the pits as well.
"When you first invade, there's a period of time when you don't have the ability to get the incinerators over there," she said by way of example. "It's very contextual."
But she claims the company kept emergency measures in place longer than necessary.
A grassroots effort
Shanna Wymore helps maintain http://www.burnpits360.org, the web site of a grassroots organization, Burnpits 360, that tracks victims, news stories and compiles data and studies on the issue. Her husband, a Missouri Air National Guardsman, developed intestinal problems after his tour in Iraq and lost three-quarters of his colon, she said.
Retired Tech. Sgt. Tim Wymore is now 100 percent disabled, and his health problems require constant attention from Shanna, who also serves as his caregiver.
Every day is a different day," she said. "We assess the problem as it comes along."
Wymore and others have compared the burn pits of Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam'sAgent Orange, the herbicide that sickened soldiers after they came home from Southeast Asia.
"These guys are getting sick so fast," she said. "My husband has lesions on his brain. He's 46."
Shanna works with roughly 80 soldiers in Missouri and has spoken with Lamprecht about his health problems. She said his story is "exactly" what she hears from many burn pit victims.
"When I talk to soldiers, I relive it," she said.
Not placing blame
Lamprecht decided to speak out about his condition because others could be facing the same problems and not know it. In his case, he said the ailments associated with burn pit exposure were insidious and difficult to track. It began as a string of seemingly unrelated ailments that eventually cascaded into full-blown disability.
If another veteran is in the same position, they need to start paying attention, he said.
"That's been the hardest part, because I originally thought there had to be one answer – something the doctors were missing," he said. "My advice would be you have to be your own patient advocate. Keep track of these things. Looking back, it's just been building up."
At present, Lamprecht is scheduled to enter a warrior transition unit at Fort Campbell. The Army operates WTUs for soldiers who are either transitioning out of the service or moving to another job because of health-related reasons. Fort Eustis in Newport News is the site of a WTU.
He will continue to see neurologists to get a more definitive picture beyond the fibromyalgia and other problems doctors have pinpointed. He remains upbeat about his future and wants it made known that he doesn't blame the Army.
He says the Army has stood by him while his health deteriorated, and he's optimistic that his case will result in a smooth hand-off from the Army to the U.S. Veterans Administration once he leaves the service.
"Make no mistake," he said. "I regret nothing. I have served my country honorably for 22 years. I loved every minute of it. My third deployment was the highlight of my life. I fought for fifteen months, and I didn't lose one soldier on the ground. The thought of having to leave the Army makes me want to break down and cry."