WASHINGTON — Veterans and lawmakers have been sounding the alarm for years that burn pits could be this generation’s Agent Orange, with potential health consequences for troops and the threat of delayed care and denied disability claims by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This year, some lawmakers are looking into legislation to declare that veterans who served in certain locations were exposed, paving the way for easier VA disability claims. And the Pentagon has been tasked to close remaining pits and provide a comprehensive list of the sites used by the military.
It can be difficult to definitively link diseases to the military dump areas piled high with everything from plastics and medicine to scrapped equipment and human waste.
Reid Guffey, 33, an Iraq War veteran, just finished chemotherapy treatment for testicular cancer after three tours overseas. For one tour, the Marine had to sleep near a burn pit at al Asad Air Base in Anbar province. When he left the military, he said his VA disability rating wasn’t high enough to cover his cancer treatments.
“I definitely have questions, I can’t say one way or another. But burn pits are definitely a concern of mine,” Guffey said. “I started doing research and saw other guys were getting sick.”
Veteran advocacy groups and some lawmakers have attributed cancers, respiratory diseases and other health issues to exposure to burn pits in combat zones, the Middle East and Africa.
“It’s unfortunate and you want to blame somebody, but at the end of the day ... it’s life,” Guffey said. “But if something is going on that’s causing this, we need to stop it now. It seems a lot of people aren’t accepting the blame.”
There’s an information gap regarding how much exposure it takes to cause long-term health damage, which illnesses are related and which service members were exposed.
“The difficulty in getting these conditions recognized is ... how do you know the service is related to the illness?” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. said.
The Defense Department banned most burn pits in combat zones amid a whirlwind of lawsuits and claims from post-9/11 veterans that they were getting sick at a young age. The military today mostly uses clean-burning incinerators downrange. But the Pentagon policy makes allowances in areas where burn pits are the only feasible way of getting rid of waste.