What Are Burn Pits, and How Did They Harm U.S. Troops?

At bases established for America’s post-9/11 wars, US military waste was often burned in large, open-air areas on the perimeter of overseas outposts.

Some of these fires continued to burn for years as other waste such as discarded computers, furniture and medical waste were dumped, releasing toxic fumes and particulates into the air that soldiers and civilians breathed.

Over time, it was revealed that many former service members who had been exposed to the poison had become ill. On Wednesday, President Biden Signed into law which increases their medical benefits.

The legislation, known as the PACT Act, aims to help veterans suffering from respiratory illnesses, cancer and other illnesses that are often caused by exposure to toxins released by trash cans at combat posts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said that as of July 1, 2001, it had approved disability claims for respiratory conditions from about 573,000 veterans who were deployed to combat zones after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But 315,000 veterans’ claims were miscalculated by the department. said

Joe Williams, a department spokesman, said the two most common reasons for denials are “nondiagnosis of the claimed condition” and “no medical connection between the claimed condition and military service.”

Now veterans with certain conditions who believe they have been exposed to toxins no longer have to prove their cases in person — a process that often involves hiring outside medical experts, which not everyone can afford.

Many items that the US military needed to get rid of were eventually sent to what the military called burn pits. (Unnecessary, damaged or excess ammunition and explosives will be detonated by experts elsewhere.)

Soda cans, broken crates, torn uniforms, worn-out shoes, classified documents, food wrappers, tires and jet fuel all ended up in one place.

Some so-called pits are not holes in the ground but often take the form of open spaces hundreds of feet across on large foundations.

Without on-site incinerators or landfills, it has become the fastest way for military forces to dispose of items, according to Bart Stichman, founder and special counsel of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit group that helps veterans obtain government benefits. Those who file disability claims have been exposed to toxins.

At many bases and outposts, fires were more or less smoldering while US troops were stationed there.

In his remarks before signing the law into law on Wednesday, Mr Biden said he had seen “burning pits the size of football fields” during more than 20 visits to military bases overseas.

He remembered seeing the remnants of that fire in the air.

“Many of the places where our soldiers slept were literally a quarter mile, a mile and a half away from where they ate their chow,” Mr. Biden said. “I mean, it’s always been there—with toxic fumes wafting through the air and into the lungs of our troops.”

“Everywhere the American military has set up bases,” including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Djibouti, Mr. Stichman said.

At many bases, the smell of burning waste was inescapable. But some service members had close contact, such as those assigned to fire dumping refuse. Others were ordered to guard the base of the fire to ensure that nothing thrown away was stolen before it was burned.

From July 2009 to July 2010, Lee Cosens was a junior enlisted soldier serving as a military police officer in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He spent four to six hours at a time every week on surveillance in case Afghan police officers or contractors at his base tried to steal uniforms or other discarded items.

Mr Cosens said it “always smelled like burning plastic” – a low-level annoyance that was often particularly intense depending on what was being destroyed.

“If it was smoky like a normal day, it smelled like you’d put a plastic bag on fire,” he said. “But if you burned things like unused lunch packs, it got really strong. You can tell that day — like a very strong, melting plastic smell.”

A long list of medical ailments have been linked to toxic exposure from burn pits. For Mr Cosens, it was revealed in March 2021 with a diagnosis of stage 4 kidney cancer.

He suspected a kidney stone, but a CT scan revealed a large mass on his left kidney – cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and lungs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs initially denied his disability claim, which he linked to his aggressive cancer while protecting a burn pit in Kandahar, but later approved it after he sought help from the National Veterans Legal Services Program, Mr. Cosens said.

They were tracking the PACT Act as it made its way through Congress.

“It would have made my fight through the system a thousand times easier than it is,” Mr Cosens, 39, said of the measure. “I’m glad to see it signed into law, knowing it will help other vets in the same boat I’m in. This will ease their battle with the VA system, hopefully. “

The department is paying for Mr. Cosens to receive specialized care from civilian medical providers, and his prognosis has greatly improved. But he may need to take oral chemotherapy drugs and intravenous immunotherapy drugs for the rest of his life.

It’s unclear whether anyone other than U.S. troops could be suffering from the toxic fumes, such as service members from allied countries who toured the same bases or civilians living downwind.

There has been no large-scale, organized effort to study the potential harm to civilians breathing the same smoke but outside the base, according to Eoghan Darbyshire, an environmental scientist at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a British charity that studies. Damage to people and environment caused by military activities.

“The job just hasn’t been done, and it’s a complicated job to do – almost impossible, given the environmental exposure to the local population and all the other corollaries from the war,” Mr Darbyshire said. “But of course if they’re exposed to the same smoke, the consequences will be the same – much worse for children, the elderly and the medically vulnerable.”

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