U.S. troops fighting America’s 20-year war didn’t have the benefit of routine twice-weekly garbage pickup at their assigned posts. Not knowing what else to do with their rubbish, they did the most logical thing they could by burning it. All of it. From human waste to used oil to outdated chemicals, it all went up in smoke, and straight into the lungs of the soldiers.
Army PFC Steven Hays, who served four tours of duty between Iraq and Afghanistan, said the smoke would drift through their tented living quarters often making it difficult to breathe. Hays was sent back to the U.S. early from his last tour due to a collapsed lung, where he was subsequently medically discharged. The burn pits were never cited as the probable cause.
By all estimates, over 3.5 million U.S. troops were exposed regularly to the toxic smoke. After all of this time, the Veterans Administration is finally taking a closer look at the widespread damage the toxic smoke may have caused.
The V.A. has an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, but because it has never been widely publicized, only 250,000 veterans have ever signed up for benefits. Most of the affected veterans have either learned to live with their condition or don’t realize what’s causing them the problems they now experience.
Combat sites don’t have time to fuss about air quality and chemical exposure so the air is never monitored. This has made it difficult for veterans since there is no written evidence to substantiate their medical claims. The ones who try almost always lose their case.
But this doesn’t mean that veterans have been quiet on this issue and others that are causing them health problems now. Veterans advocates have spent years tracking respiratory failures and even rare cancers that can be linked directly to burn pits, and they’ve been hammering the V.A. relentlessly to show a bit more compassion.
The advocates say the V.A. has been using outdated and partial scientific information as a rule book for awarding medical disability claims and that its entire system is in need of total revamping.
As of now, the responsibility for proving that a disability is military-related falls on the veteran. This requires them to comb through their enormously large file of medical records in search of the slightest thing that may have been a contributing factor. The problem with this is that, many times, the symptoms don’t appear until long after they’ve shunned their uniform, so they have no evidence. Boom. Claim denied.
In the case of burn pits, yet another problem exists. Nobody kept an account of what was being burned. Anything and everything got tossed in the heap and whoever was on duty that night lit the match. Some of the garbage got burned in 55-gallon drums that required being stirred while the smoke barreled up the poor soldier’s nasal cavities.
For the veterans who have been suffering for years and getting nowhere, the V.A.s new disability guidelines will steer towards “a multi-faceted scale to evaluate the strength of scientific and other evidence and allow the V.A. to make faster policy decisions on key exposures.”
It’s long past time for the Veterans Administration to step up to the plate, but so far, it’s all talk we’ve heard before. Government bureaucracy is certain to interfere in the process, and until such time as veterans are no longer viewed as used commodities who only serve to drive up the nation’s debt, inaction will continue to be the norm.
Maybe things will be different this time around and America’s injured veterans will at long last receive what they’ve deserved all along, but the jury’s still out.