Veterans suffering from serious illnesses blame exposure to burn pits during war

Sgt. Robert B. Brown from Fayetteville, N.C. with Regimental Combat Team 6, Combat Camera Unit watches over the civilian Fire Fighters at the burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him on May 25th, 2007. Camp Fallujah has its own civilian run Fire Department to assist the Marines and Soldiers during a fire or emergency. Regimental Combat Team 6 is deployed with Multi National Forces-West in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq to develop Iraqi Security Forces, facilitate the development of official rule of law through democratic reforms, and continue the development of a market based economy centered on Iraqi reconstruction. (Official USMC photograph by Cpl. Samuel D. Corum)(RELEASED)(RELEASED)

Many vets who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are now dealing with serious illnesses and are certain that exposure to burn pits, during the war, is to blame.

34-year old Iraq war veteran Chris Lang, says “We always joked about it,” referring to the Olympic-pool-size burn pit. “Like, we’re going to live through this [war] but not that thing over there.”

The Marine vet was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2011, six years after returning home.

More than 4,000 vets have joined a class-action lawsuit, claiming civilian contractor KBR and former parent company, Halliburton, risked their health for profit. They claim that the company torched hazardous materials in burn pits instead of installing incinerators to more safely burn trash.

Rick Lambreth, who worked for KBR, testified at a Senate hearing that he saw burn pits dispose of “nuclear, biological, and medical waste.”

Lang says he usually crawled into bed in the morning as contractors reignited the pit with jet fuel, about 150 yards from his tent. “It was impossible not to be near the smoke,” he said.

His doctor told him the illness “could be war-related.” Lang filed a claim with the VA but the agency denied it, stating his diagnosis came too long after his service. He had already become a Bucks County sheriff’s deputy, by the time his lymphoma spread to his spleen and bones.

37-year old Cindy Aman, a former National Guard member, said she had to leave her job as a police officer because of her constrictive bronchiolitis. It took two years of fighting with the VA to get medical coverage, she told “I kept telling them: This isn’t about the money to me, but about setting a precedent,” she said.

Aman got coverage after she underwent a special lung biopsy that revealed dust and metal often found in other Iraq war vets. She believes her illness “stems from a combination of exposures, including burn pits and dust storms.”  Iraq’s toxic dust storms are causing other complications.

Officials say it’s difficult to prove whether these seriously ill vets got sick from exposure to the burn pits or if it was the famous Iraqi dust storms.  The VA is building a registry for veterans who believe they were affected by the burn pits, but do not expect to sign up today.  The VA’s online sign up page has been “under maintenance” since last week.

Burn Pit Registry

Researchers at Vanderbilt University examined 38 Iraq war vets with constrictive bronchiolitis, the rare lung condition. The majority had inhaled burn-pit smoke – but even more had encountered dust storms.

Since the VA opened a registry last year to track the health of exposed vets, nearly 45,000 have signed on — according to

Vietnam veterans’ faced similar challenges after being exposed to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant the military sprayed to clear the jungles in Vietnam. Researchers spent decades studying exposed veterans, but it wasn’t until the 1990s, that the VA started to cover serious illnesses tied to the herbicide, like cancer.

That is the fear with the burn-pit studies… that it could take decades before anything can be proven and it will be too late for many of these vets who just want to see justice. Veterans’ advocates say the VA has denied thousands of burn-pit exposure-related health claims. The agency maintains that research has “so far failed to prove a link between exposure and long-term disease.”

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  • Michele graduated with a B.S. in Telecommunication from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. She has spent numerous years working in the news industry in south Florida, including many positions ranging from being a news writer at WSVN, the Fox affiliate in Miami to being an associate news producer at WPLG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Miami. Michele has also worked in Public Relations and Marketing.

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