Burn pits at US bases in Iraq, Afghanistan blamed for veterans' illnesses
By KEN GORDON | The Columbus Dispatch | Published: March 5, 2018
Andrea Neutzling lives in fear of not being able to breathe.
She suffers from constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare, incurable lung disease. Her doctors blame her condition on the toxic smoke she inhaled from the trash burned in open pits during her year of deployment in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
Once a healthy high school athlete, Neutzling now takes along a portable oxygen machine whenever she leaves her house in the Meigs County village of Pomeroy. On particularly hot or cold days, she must employ special precautions, or her lungs could spasm.
"The pain is excruciating," she said. "It makes me want to vomit."
Neutzling was deployed to Camp Bucca in southern Iraq — one of hundreds of U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq where trash was burned in open pits for years.
She is among thousands of veterans and civilian contractors who blame the "burn pits" for a host of health problems, including leukemia, brain tumors, congestive heart failure, severe migraines, memory loss and lupus.
Everything went into burn pits — tires, batteries, medical and biological waste -- and the clouds of smoke often drifted over troops and civilians where they lived and worked.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014 set up a burn-pit registry on its website for those affected. As of Feb. 15, more than 130,000 people had registered. The VA estimates that 3 million veterans are eligible to register.
Although the VA describes the registry as an attempt to gather information about exposures and health concerns, many of those sickened by the exposures have been denied VA compensation benefits.
In his 2016 book, "Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers," author and veteran Joseph Hickman draws a parallel to the decades-long fight to get the defoliant Agent Orange recognized as a cause of illness among Vietnam War veterans, accusing the VA of denying claims to avoid the heavy costs.
The VA denies such assertions.
Lawsuits have been filed, and legislation has been introduced in Congress to address the issue, but progress has been slow.
"I don't know how we can send veterans to war within three or four days, but when they get home and they're sick from those wars, it takes years and years to help them," Hickman said.
"It's the saddest thing on Earth."
'A metallic taste'
Burn pits were established at many bases in Afghanistan and Iraq soon after U.S. involvement began in those countries — in 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq.
Some of those pits were run by KBR Inc., a private engineering firm, under a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. The pits were supposed to be temporary — intended to be replaced by the construction of incinerators, which burn at a higher temperature and thus produce fewer toxic substances.
But burn pits remained in widespread use for years; more than 270 were still operating in 2010, according to a report from the military's U.S. Central Command. Since then, the burn pits have been phased out, although Department of Defense policy still allows for burn pits to be installed (and strictly monitored) on a short-term basis.
One or two days a month while deployed in Iraq, Neutzling was required to haul her unit's trash to a nearby burn pit.
"I grew up on the Ohio River, and the Ohio River on a hot, muggy day smells like dead fish," Neutzling said. "I'll take that smell over the burn pits. That was harsher, and it left a metallic taste in your mouth."
The reason: Metals were among the toxic substances released into the air.
Hired as a contractor for KBR, Terry Evans, of Dunkirk in Hardin County, flew to Tallil Air Base in Iraq in November 2008. He worked in a trailer parked about 15 yards from the base's square-shaped burn pit, whose size he estimated at 50 to 60 yards across and 8 to 10 feet deep.
He observed workers pouring in diesel fuel to ignite the trash.
"They backed up a truck, and that fuel was flowing for five or six minutes before they lit it," Evans said.
In a 2006 internal memo, Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, a bioenvironmental engineer, issued a scathing report detailing the health concerns and calling for the rapid shutdown of the burn pits.
Among the materials burned north of Baghdad at the Balad Air Base, Curtis listed plastics, Styrofoam, rubber, medical waste and solvents such as paint. He also identified substances found via air-sample tests, including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, metals and sulfuric acid.
Asked whether the Department of Defense acknowledged any violations of its burn-pit policies, a spokesman emailed a response to The Dispatch along with a copy of its policy.
"We require military and contractors to follow Department of Defense policy," the spokesman wrote. "If there are violations of this policy, people should report those violations."
Poor quality of life
Neutzling said her health problems began surfacing in 2007, about a year after her deployment ended.
She was still in the Army (she left in 2010) but had such a difficult time breathing during a physical-fitness exam that she considered going to the emergency room.
In 2011, she filed for VA disability benefits and was denied.
Like Neutzling, other affected veterans struggled to be heard. Many VA doctors, unaware of burn-pit exposure, instead suggested that the illnesses were all in the patients' head or that they had asthma.
Neutzling eventually found a physician who performed a lung biopsy, the only way to diagnose constrictive bronchiolitis.
In January 2015, the VA awarded Neutzling 100 percent disability for the lung disease. She was nearly $25,000 in debt because of frequent hospital trips and her need for oxygen — bills that the VA has since paid.
Compared with others, Neutzling is fortunate.
When Marysville resident Paul Richmond returned from his 2005 deployment with the Air National Guard to Ali Air Base in Iraq, he began suffering severe migraines. He said he never had them before that deployment, and he believes they were caused by the burn pit at the base, which he said produced smoke that infiltrated the tents in which he worked and lived.
The headaches have forced him to frequently call off sick from his job as a 911 dispatcher for the city of Dublin. Because of his tenure with the city, Richmond, 51, is eligible for retirement, but he said he can't afford to take it because he needs insurance coverage.
Three times, the VA has turned down his application for disability benefits.
"It's really painful, really disheartening," Richmond said.
Evans worked for nearly three years in Iraq, and his health was failing even before he returned in 2011. He had lost weight, suffered severe nosebleeds, was tired constantly, and coughed so hard and frequently that he broke nine ribs.
In 2010, a doctor in Kuwait diagnosed Evans with Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare autoimmune disorder in which the lungs are scarred and don't expand and contract correctly. Although its causes aren't well-known, the disorder is thought to be an immune-system response to inflammation. Evans said a doctor in Toledo told him that it probably resulted from his burn-pit exposure.
As a civilian, Evans, 48, cannot file for VA benefits. He is applying for Social Security disability benefits and has given up on ever paying off his medical debts for his trips to the Cleveland Clinic and the more frequent, expensive shots he requires to maintain his diminished level of health.
"The whole thing is depressing," he said. "I try to stay as positive as possible, but it's a horrible situation to be in."
Hope for help?
The 2006 Air Force memo, combined with a growing chorus of complaints from ill veterans, has spurred action in fits and starts.
Beginning in 2007, the military launched its own air-quality studies, but questions were raised about the methodology and accuracy.
For the past 20 years, Kerry Baker, a veteran himself, has worked for law firms as a specialist in VA disability claims.
"The VA says there is no science behind" the assertion that burn-pit exposure caused certain illnesses, Baker said, "but that's debatable. They have done some studies, but I think it's a case of 'garbage in, garbage out,' because they either can't produce the data that they studied, or they don't have the data."
In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a detailed report critical of the military for its lax oversight of burn pits. The report cited numerous Defense Department documents discouraging the long-term use of burn pits, for example, and said the military failed to sample or monitor burn-pit emissions.
In 2016, Hickman's book was published, sparking producer Greg Lovett to make the documentary film "Delay, Deny, Hope You Die," which was released last year and shown nationwide, including screenings in October in central Ohio. The film title comes from the accusation that the VA is denying benefits and dragging its feet on recognizing effects of burn-pit exposure in order to avoid costly payments.
"Those claims are false," a VA spokesperson said via an email to The Dispatch. "Cost savings are not an issue in any way, shape or form."
The spokesperson went on to say that "no studies have linked airborne hazards with a chronic condition or disability that could be determined to be a presumption of exposure to burn pits."
In 2010, a lawsuit was filed against KBR Inc. in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Maryland, alleging improper use of burn pits. It has grown to a class-action suit with more than 700 plaintiffs (including Evans).
In August 2017, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus dismissed the case, saying KBR could not be held liable for a military decision on waste disposal. An appeal of the dismissal is scheduled to be heard this month by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
In a statement, KBR said: "At the limited number of bases where KBR operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military.
"Government studies and reports show that military personnel deployed to Southwest Asia were exposed to many hazardous conditions, including the harsh ambient air. The government's best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded that there is no link between any long-term health issues and burn-pit emissions."
During the past several years, bills to help affected veterans have been introduced in both houses of Congress but stalled. Bills now in both the House and Senate have been referred to committees for more hearings and studies.
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is co-sponsoring a Senate bill that would create a center of excellence within the VA to better study and treat exposed veterans.
Despite their struggles, Ohio veterans Neutzling and Richmond don't regret serving their country.
Neutzling, a fifth-generation veteran, said she wouldn't dissuade her 14-year-old daughter, Paxton, from joining the military.
Richmond's 19-year-old daughter, Shelby, enlisted during the summer in the Air National Guard.
"I really enjoyed the military, and I think the military is a great thing, and I would do it again," Richmond said. "But, that being said, the VA should step up and take care of those who served."
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