Dying for one’s country is honorable, but dying because of one’s country is reprehensible. This is exactly how those who shared testimony of disease caused by burn pit exposure feel. They shared their feelings of abandonment and despair in a documentary, titled “Delay, deny, hope you die: How America Poisoned its Soldiers,” which made its debut in Minneapolis two weeks ago.
The title of the documentary comes from how veterans afflicted with disease felt the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) treated them when they fell ill from what they believed was caused by burn pit exposure. They shared stories of delayed payment, denied claims and the feeling that if they died, the military would be better off, not having to make payment at all.
The documentary describes the burn pits, shares testimonies of hardship from troops who were exposed and are now suffering from deadly illnesses, details what healthcare professionals are saying, and outlines the military’s refusal to draw a connection between the burn pits and long-term, serious illnesses.
“If they don’t see symptoms within the first 12 months of being discharged from the military, they don’t see it as being service connected,” claimed the wife of one veteran who has developed cancer.
The producer of the documentary, Gregory Lovett, said his main goal is to create awareness. “The more people become informed, the greater the chance that change will come,” said Lovett. “This policy of failing veterans upon their return to the U.S. has to stop. The American people have an obligation to take care of veterans after their service. They were willing to sacrifice everything for our freedom, but then they are forgotten.”
The change Lovett refers to is compensation for all medical expenses incurred from the burn pits, along with compensation due to loss of work related to those illnesses. But this is currently impossible because the military is not recognizing a link between the burn pits and any long term serious health effects such as cancer.
Former Governor Jesse Ventura attended the documentary and was visibly shaken by the content. When asked why he attended, he replied, “The documentary made me cry. I saw us go through the same thing with Agent Orange, but our country ignored us.”
“Years go by and guys pass on,” added Ventura. “You don’t know what killed them. I’ve come from military and served in time of war … when they’re done with you, they’re done with you.” Ventura was also surprised that, though invited, the major Twin Cities media outlets were not present to cover the event.
The next Agent Orange?
The documentary compares the burn pits to Agent Orange, which was an herbicide used in the Vietnam War to clear dense brush in which enemy soldiers were concealed. The long term health effects of this chemical exposure, including certain cancers, nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders, were not recognized by the U.S. Government until years later.
Similar to burn pits, veterans were told that Agent Orange was harmless, but when they returned from deployment, many began experiencing ill health and having children born with birth defects. Those veterans began filing claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 1977 for disability and health care costs related to their conditions, but their claims were denied unless they could prove the condition began when they were deployed or within a year of returning home from deployment.
In 1979, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 2.4 million veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service in Vietnam, according to History.com. Five years later, a settlement was made with seven large chemical companies in the amount of $180 million to be paid to veterans or their next of kin.
From batteries to body parts
Burning trash in war is not new, but the invasion of Iraq extended for a decade, and the war in Afghanistan followed suit. Military personnel produced nine pounds per day per person and risking lives by transporting off-base wasn’t an option. Burn pits were formed to deal with the growing personal and military waste. Items thrown into the burn pits included trash, plastics, medical supplies, chemicals, batteries, paint, tires, diesel fuel, human waste and body parts from war. Accelerants, such as jet fuel, were also used to make the waste burn.
The burn pits created a black and blue cloud of smoke that settled over the barracks and affected those working next to it or in it, burning the eyes, nose and throat. The largest burn pits were located at bases in Mosul, Taji, Tikrit, Tallil and Balad.
According to one testimony by U.S. Marine Sergeant Brian Alvardo, there was no protection from the burn pits offered to soldiers. The only protection offered, according to Alvardo, was a mask provided for nuclear or biological warfare that none of the soldiers wore or were told to wear. Alvardo suffers from throat cancer he believes is directly caused by burn pits.
In October 2009, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization into law, which included a ban on improper use of burn pits. It additionally required an investigation into burn pit effects, according to a timeline put together by Motley Rice, LLC.
Motley Rice, LLC represented veterans and their families in a consolidated case against Kellogg Brown & Root, now known as KBR, Inc. The U.S. military contracted KBR to operate the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and allegedly paid them to use incinerators to properly dispose of waste. In September 2010, burn pit lawsuits from across the country were consolidated into one case led by Motley Rice. The class action lawsuit brought 11 counts against KBR, including breach of contract, negligent hiring, training and supervision, and medical monitoring.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed the lawsuit in February 2013, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit brought the case back to district court for further proceedings in March 2014.
In July 2017, the case was dismissed again by U.S. District Court Judge Roger W. Titus. While the judge recognized the adverse health effects in the plaintiffs, he dismissed the case because it was essentially a military decision to use the burn pits, not the contractor’s. Holding the Pentagon responsible for the charges, he said, is outside his jurisdiction.
The faces of burn pits
Pine County native Amie Muller, 36, who passed away February 18, 2017 from pancreatic cancer, believed her cancer was caused by exposure to burn pits while deployed in the National Guard in Iraq. Muller was featured in Lovett’s documentary, along with a number of other veterans who were exposed and suffered ill effects.
Muller’s story has been featured by the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, gaining statewide attention, but has not been noticed nationwide.
In the documentary, Sergeant Brian Alvardo spoke through a tracheostomy tube while his wife translated for him. Alvardo, who is in his 30s, said his tonsils were swollen and he bled from the mouth after returning from Iraq. He was never a smoker or drinker, according to his wife. The doctor told him his throat cancer was caused by chemical exposure. Alvardo believes it was due to the smoke that hung over them all day 24-7, he said.
Former Defense Contractor Bobby Elesky developed sinus problems and a hacking cough that wouldn’t go away. “I began coughing up different colors and had general body weakness,” said Elesky. “I didn’t know anything about burn pit exposure until after the diagnosis.” Elesky was diagnosed with a tumor in his head called a plasmacytoma, with the cause being toxic exposure, according to his doctor.
“We all knew the risks of being shot or injured but never signed up to be poisoned,” said Elesky. A number of other testimonies of serious, adverse health effects were shared in the documentary as well.
Dr. Anthony Szema of the VA Medical Center in New York started to notice a change in the waiting room demographics in 2004. Instead of old, white males making up its composition, the waiting room held men and women in their 20s and 30s back from their first tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. The common denominator: Exposure to burn pits. Twenty-five-year-old males were coming back with the lung tissue of an 85-year-old male, he said in his documentary interview.
“When you burn in open air settings in a low temperature, it generates 1000 times more particles than using an incinerator,” said Szema. “When burning, carcinogens reach a person when they eat it, inhale it, sniff it or get it on their skin. When they get exposed to carcinogens, this can cause cancer. And when waste is burned with jet fuel at a low temperature, this releases benzene which is a carcinogen.”
As of this week, the VA website still states, “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”
A registry has been set up for veterans who believe they have been affected by their exposure. More than 100,000 veterans have signed the registry, for which they agree to a medical evaluation in order to aid the VA in learning about potential health effects, according to the VA’s website.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced a bill, called “Helping Vets Exposed to Burn Pits Act,” in February of this year. The bill is currently in committee and has 14 co-sponsors in the Senate from both Democrats and Republicans. In the House of Representatives, Representative Elizabeth Etsy, a Democrat from Connecticut, introduced the bill in March 2017, where it sits in subcommittees.
Senators Klobuchar and Thom Thillis (R-NC) sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in May, requesting that “burn pit exposure be included as a congressionally directed Department of Defense research topic,” according to a press release from Klobuchar’s office. The letter also requested funding for research on effects from burn pit exposure and related illnesses, which would be included in the FY 2018 defense appropriations bill. The burn pit registry can be found at https://mobile.va.gov/app/burn-pit-registry.
A special one-day-only Veterans Day offer is available for those who want to stream the documentary online. It can be pre-ordered and watched on Veterans Day weekend. After that, it won’t be available again until 2018. The link to order is: www.vimeo.com/ondemand/burnpits,
A portion of the proceeds will go to aid burn pit victims and their families.