Here’s What You Need to Know About the Burn Pits

When I first moved back to the United States after living abroad, I worked at the local Dairy Queen to make ends meet while my husband and I worked through the immigration process. During a particularly busy Saturday afternoon, the line to the counter wrapped around the corner in the mall—and we were rushing to get everyone served. I was making a hot fudge sundae, and the machine got stuck. As it got stuck, the force I was applying to the dispenser coupled with it sticking caused my hand to slip and slam on the metal shelf below it—fracturing the metacarpal in two places.

My (less than pleased) boss had to pay workers comp. Why? Because I was injured on company time by company equipment.

That’s the case virtually anywhere someone sustains injuries as a direct result of performing job duties.

Let me restate: I was a low-skilled worker doing menial labor at minimum wage job … and my situation was covered, COMPLETELY. I never paid a dime for my care, and I got it right away at a NICE clinic.

My ice cream incident was on my mind these last few weeks as I thought about our nation’s veterans—particularly those who have served overseas in war zones and who have come back mentally and physically broken, to a country that promised to give them everything they needed for giving all of themselves for our freedom.

Their experiences with the VA medical and disability system are arduous at best, and life-threatening at worst.

A while back I wrote about a forgotten warrior … one of millions struggling to navigate the VA. His mother, who graciously allowed me to share his story, put it this way:

“The VA building nearest my son is dirty, decrepit, and smells like ‘mildew, old people, and piss,’ he told me. The waiting room chairs are stained and ragged. He told me, ‘It’s a hell-hole, Mom.’ This from a veteran soldier who fought in the dirt and filth of battle in the desert for months, going on missions without showering for days, where his main concern was that his gun was clean and functional. He’s no wall-flower.”

A hell-hole.

Those are the centers supposedly caring for the men and women who put themselves on the line for our freedoms.

And that’s not even the extent of it: veterans who return from war aren’t simply fighting to get the care they need for their injuries; they’re fighting to get the compensation they deserve as part of the disability payments the government is supposed to afford them based on their injuries.

This woman continued:

“Oh sure, they granted him some disability benefits for his chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, a tiny bit for his chronic thoracolumbar strain (from the IED blast that sent him flying into the roof of his MRAP vehicle, compressing his spine), and a little bit for the ringing in his ears.”

Still, they refused to grant him disability payments for the internal injuries (among others: chronic migraines, GI distress, kidney failure, gout, and fungus on his lungs) he sustained as a result of being based at Joint Base Baland—where one of many now-infamous burn pits roared and spewed its black smoke in the air. As The New Republic’s Jennifer Percy wrote, “Joint Base Balad was churning out three times more garbage than Juneau, Alaska, which had a comparable population. Balad’s pit, situated in the northwest corner of the base, spanned ten acres and burned more than 200 tons of military-related trash a day,” exposing service members to air that later tested positive for things like “arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, metals and sulfuric acid.”

But that?

That’s “not service-connected.”

Spine crushed by an IED blast? Sure, they’ll throw ‘em a few disability percentage points for that. PTSD? Sure, maybe a few for that too. But breathing in toxic smoke as a result of where the military ORDERED these men and women stationed?

Nope; there isn’t any “science behind it.”

Yeah, ok.

Save for the small percentage of the country whose family members serve, most Americans are blissfully unware of the horrors wreaked by exposing our men and women in uniform to these burn pits.

So here’s what you need to know:

What is it and where were they? Sprinkled across bases in the Middle East, think of them as very, very hot garbage dumps. Batteries, human waste, animal remains, amputated body parts, nuclear waste, plastic—all slathered with a thick layer of jet fuel and kept ablaze endlessly. (See here for a more comprehensive list of what went up in the pits.)

What’s happening? The list of physical complications is unfathomable. From as “minor” as migraines to as devastating as cancer, those exposed to the toxic smoke are suffering silently, as the VA has tried to brush off the illnesses—even going as far as to tell one veteran who was coughing up blood and had tumors growing on his face that he simply had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That veteran had basal cell carcinoma, and like so many other exposed to the pit, ultimately ended with constrictive bronchiolitis—an incurable disease. The veteran whose family I spoke with back in 2016 suffers from chronic migraines, GI distress, kidney failure, gout (thanks to his now-poorly functioning kidneys), and now most recently—fungus on his lungs. He routinely suffers from respiratory issues. He left at 18, and came back an old man. Even former Vice President Joe Biden “voiced the belief that his son’s fatal brain cancer may have been caused by exposure to military burn pits while serving in Iraq and Kosovo.”

Who is (and isn’t) doing something about it? Veterans have been fighting this for years; at one point a class-action suit arose in 2010 against KRB, Inc., one of the federal contractors responsible for some of the burn pits. The case was dismissed in 2017 by U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus, who noted that “KBR could not be held liable for a military decision on waste disposal.” Ok, sure—fair enough (maybe) … KBR operated on the military’s behest. Except “the firm ignored safety regulations and failed to switch to incinerators, even after soldiers began falling ill.” Indeed, MILLIONS of dollars were spent on incinerators–many of which were not used. Yeah, you read that right– in  many cases incinerators were available, and were not used. 

Adding insult to injury, a “kicking and screaming” VA (which claims that “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits”) half-halfheartedly created a burn pit registry in 2012 for service members who felt they were affected. As I wrote in back in 2016, “the VA does maintain what author Joseph Hickman calls‘a failed [burn pit] registry, which, as Hickman continued, ‘doesn’t work,’ and ‘could take 20-30 years for someone to get assistance.’” Par for the course, I suppose, for an organization that’s still lackadaisically addressing the ramifications caused by Agent Orange nearly half a decade ago in Vietnam.  Ironically, the burn pits “generated numerous pollutants including carbon monoxide and dioxin — the same chemical compound found in Agent Orange.” Well, what do you know.

In what felt like a glimmer of hope, a judge under the U.S. Department of Labor Office for Worker’s Compensation Programs “decreed last month that open-air burn pits—where thousands of chemicals were released into the air after trash and other waste were incinerated at American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan—are connected to lung disease.”

The ruling will help some—particularly civilians who worked for military contractors (like KBR) who were also exposed to the burn pits. It doesn’t, however, the power to sway the VA and what they’re doing (and NOT doing) about it. It, as Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Ken Weisman pointed out, helps to drive the point home that prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals and bio-hazards is, you know, kind of a problem.

In other words, it’s one sort of positive step on a very long, very tragic path.

Meanwhile, vets are still suffering—and dying. And they will until the very same government that sent these men and women overseas and that contracted with feckless entities like KBR finally recognizes their role in ruining the lives of those who managed to make it back alive.

As President Trump just announced the firing of the current VA Secretary in favor of White House physician and Iraq War veteran Dr. Ronny Jackson, let’s hope things get serious.

Lives are literally depending on it.

Mary Ramirez is a full-time writer, creator of (a political commentary blog), and contributor to The Chris Salcedo Show. She can be reached at:; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree


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