As an Air Force lab technician at Camp Tallil in southern Iraq, Wesley Archuleta had the task of burning medical waste — body parts, surgical remains and blood bags that would “go off like grenades” in the flames.
Fifty feet from where he deposited his grisly loads, workers fed an open-air burn pit with just about anything imaginable from the modern battlefield: chemicals, weapons, munitions, metals and plastics.
“You name it, they burned it,” said Archuleta, 47, of San Antonio, who suffers from tremors, a chronic cough and shortness of breath.
Enrique Diaz, of Houston, an Air Force engineer deployed at Camp Speicher in Northern Iraq, would watch as contractors backed up to a burn pit a quarter-mile from where he slept to deposit chemicals, plastics and assorted waste.
The VA says the most frequently claimed ailments from burn pits exposure are asthma, chronic bronchitis, allergic rhinitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sleep apnea.
The VA’s burn pits registry measured participants by their ability to perform five activities, the most strenuous of which was running or jogging a mile and the least strenuous was walking ten steps. More than one-third reported difficulty completing all five.
A Pentagon-supported study this year examining the health of 75,000 veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan found a 24-30 percent higher risk of new-onset asthma than those without combat experience. Hispanic men and women had an even higher rate of asthma.
In a study published this spring, impurities were found in the lungs of mice given droplets of water with dust from near an Iraq burn pit. “When you look at the mouse lungs under the microscope, what you see is identical to what you see in soldiers’ lungs,” said Dr. Anthony Szema, a professor at Zucker Medical School at Hofstra University.
Diaz’s worsening health problems led to his separation from the military for asthma. Diaz, 44, who could run six miles a decade ago, now takes three asthma medications and suffers from headaches and a sinus condition that landed him in emergency rooms this spring.
Like thousands of others who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Texans are pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs to acknowledge that their health problems stemmed from haphazard burning and grant them the care and the benefits that accompany service-connected injury.