Battle on the homefront: Local military burn pit victims share testimony of burn pit exposure

Simply burning wood, the EPA cautions, has the short term (hours or days of exposure) effects of a number of lung diseases, respiratory infections and asthma. Long term effects may include cancer and reproductive/developmental effects, according to their website.


But what does our government have to say about burning materials such as trash, plastics, batteries, medical supplies, chemicals, paint, tires, diesel fuel, human waste and body parts in the military burn pits of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars? Very little, despite a growing number of young veterans coming home only to face a new health battle waged on the homefront.


In Part I of the military burn pit series, we covered the documentary which made its debut in Minneapolis in October titled “Delay, Deny, Hope you Die: How America Poisoned its Soldiers.”


Part II will spotlight three Pine County veterans as they share their experiences with the military burn pits of Afghanistan and Iraq, the first of whom is our own Veterans Services Officer, Ben Wiener.


‘We know the health hazards’


Pine County Veterans Services Officer Ben Wiener has had numerous deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Now he has to use a variety of inhalers to treat his lung disease, diagnosed as pulmonary obstructions, in which he was first denied acknowledgment by the VA.


“Mine was caused by dust and pollutants while in Iraq,” said Wiener. “Everybody reacts differently, and mine only causes problems under heavy exertions and cold weather.”


Wiener first enlisted in the National Guard as a medic at the age of 23 to help earn money for college. During college, he joined the ROTC and was commissioned, serving three years of active duty in Fort Hood, TX. His major was biology and earth science, and when he returned from service, he got a job with the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) as a pollution control specialist.


“Here we aren’t allowed to burn garbage because of the toxins,” said Wiener. “We know the health hazards.”


Wiener was in his first deployment in Iraq when exposed to the military burn pit at Camp Victory. This burn pit was one of five that was built on top of chemical warfare sites left over from Saddam Hussein’s rule, according to Joseph Hickman author of “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.”


“When I was in my first deployment in Iraq, we secured the perimeter of the dump on the Victory base,” said Wiener. “Everybody that served in Iraq was exposed to burning garbage, and for some reason, they were always built up wind and sent particulates in the air.”

They were all the same, said Wiener of the military burn pits, and the air always smelled of something burning. If it wasn’t the dumps burning, it was an oil field or nearby Baghdad citizens who also burned their debris. “They were basically a dump with running fires. Something was always burning,” said Wiener. “There were also things burning that the military doesn’t want left behind, for intelligence purposes, like uniforms and computers.”


Though Wiener was never on burn pit detail, he observed that soldiers really weren’t given protection. “Some places were a lot of worse. They had to burn sewage. They had to mix fuel with sewage to make it burn and someone had to be on that detail and stir it,” he said. He added that those people wore equipment.


Wiener’s claim for his pulmonary obstructions was eventually accepted. He explained that when veterans file a claim for compensation for a military-related ailment, they need three things: a current diagnosis, a documented event that occured in service such as an accident or medical connection, and a doctor to say there is a connection between the incident and health condition.


“You need to find a doctor who will look at the research and say that because of exposure to dioxins, this has created the cancer,” added Wiener.


Often times, a veteran can help the doctor make that connection by doing research and finding studies and articles from renowned medical clinics, said Wiener. “You will have a much stronger chance of getting it service connected. But in some cases, the research hasn’t even been done, and there aren’t enough people who have the connection,” added Wiener. “A lot more people are going to come down with the conditions before they can become presumptive conditions.”


If an illness can be verified as service connected, the VA will cover healthcare expenses and compensate for loss of earning potential, said Wiener. But if the vets don’t fall below the income threshold, roughly $43,000 per year, and cannot create the case that their ailment is service connected, they are on their own.


It is essentially the middle income earners who are falling through the cracks. These are people who have returned from deployment and really don’t make much money, Wiener said. “And they haven't made the service connection yet. … Those are the ones who fall through the cracks.” Since 2003, all returning combat veterans are eligible for VA care for the first five years after discharge, added Wiener. After that, they have to meet the service connection or income requirements.


Burn pits on a normal day


Kelly Shank was in the Army National Guard and completed tours in Saudi Arabia from August 2004 to January 2016. While there, he worked in close proximity to the burn pits.


"Our place of stay was actually right across the road from it,” he recounted. "They smelled really bad, and the smoke haze it left hanging in the air was sickening. People would complain about it, but after you're there awhile, you get used to it. Then it's just like any other normal day."


Part of the soldiers' routines was a weekly two-mile run. The run took them through what Shank called the "dingy, smelly haze of the burn pits."


The military did provide protective gear to those working with the burn pits, according to Shank. It is called Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology, or JLIST, and it’s used in chemical warfare. It includes a suit and gas mask, along with other equipment, but Shank said it was never put on by the soldiers.


Despite his long-term exposure, Shank hasn't noticed any adverse health effects from his burn pit exposure, though he says he hasn't had any lung testing.


Mass graves


Alan White was in the army from 1985 to 2006 and spent time in Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and lastly, in Afghanistan’s Operation Enduring Freedom. White’s exposure to military burn pits included the burning of human waste, human bodies (of the opposition by their own military) and the burning of oil fields.


The first encounter he had was the pouring of gas over the outhouse barrels. “You were exposed to the smoke. We wore bandanas when we started them up, and then got out of the way,” recalled White. “It was just one of those jobs that someone had to do. We covered our faces (with the bandanas) to keep the heat and smell away.” These were right next to the camps, he added.


The oil fields that were on fire (started by the Iraqis) were very close by, White said. “It would depend on how the wind was coming through, and for a while, it was almost like daytime was night time,” recounted White. “This lasted a couple weeks before they could get them under control in Desert Storm in Kuwait.”  


White also had the unfortunate experience of passing by mass graves of Iraqi soldiers. “They left their soldiers in a mass grave,” said White. “We were real close to a convoy of Iraqi soldiers that got airstruck near us, and they were left there and put into an area and set on fire. I came there after they were mostly done burning, but got within close proximity of them. It had its own unique smell. It’s a hard smell to explain. There is no other smell like burning bodies.”


White said the smoke was everywhere and always on their clothes. “You got used to it and wore goggles or sunglasses or stayed inside,” he recalled. “It was like being next door to a wildfire except they were burning tires and other things.”


Since then, White said that he has received a couple surveys and fliers from the VA. He has since then been medically evaluated, in 2000, and found to have a four percent breathing capacity loss, and is a non-smoker, but does not receive any compensation or disability from the military for it.


Beau Biden and the burn pits


Author Joseph Hickman, whose book “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers” spurred the documentary, made a connection between the death of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau Biden, and the burn pits.


Hickman found through research that the Mosul, Taji, Tikrit, Tallil and Balad bases saw the worst cases of health. These bases not only were locations of burn pits, but they were also located on or near documented chemical warfare sites from Hussein’s rule. Biden spent time at the Balad base and died in 2015 at the age of 46 from brain cancer.


Biden’s case is hardly an anomaly among soldiers who served on these five bases. Hickman found 112 service members and contractors who served at Balad and Camp Victory like Biden. Of those 112, 31 suffered from different forms of cancers and brain tumors, as reported by a Business Insider article in February 2016.


The former vice president has been reported by the Huffington Post as saying connections between the respiratory diseases and various cancers and the burn pits are based on circumstantial evidence. But he told members of Congress and military scientists in December 2016, according to the Huffington Post, “I’m going to be the biggest pain your neck as long as I live, until we figure out these burn pits.”


Finding the way forward


Time cannot be turned back for the soldiers experiencing adverse effects. Like Agent Orange, nothing can be done about decisions made in the past. However, action can be taken now to change the future for veterans affected by military burn pits.


In theory, if the VA were to research the burn pits and related illnesses from exposure to them, and acknowledge a connection, the long road of diagnosis and compensation would be expedited. It’s difficult, though, to see how the VA could handle the influx of cases that would flood their gates. Taking responsibility for the adverse effects could break the military healthcare system as it stands now.


There is legislation that seeks to address this. Senator Amy Klobuchar, when she visited Hinckley’s American Legion on Veterans Day, said, “We learned lessons from Agent Orange … It took too long to acknowledge.” Those same mistakes, she went on, can’t be repeated.


The VA’s registry for those exposed to burn pits is just one step of the process. Research, she said, needs to be done to investigate the scope of ill effects from the burn pits, as well as treatment options for those coping with long-term effects. A bill she co-sponsored in the Senate with Republican Senator Thom Tillis from North Carolina seeks to set up a center of excellence within the VA for the very purpose of research and establishing treatment options.

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