Thousands of veterans say their cancers and respiratory illnesses are linked to burn pits that destroyed garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many say the government won't pay for their expensive medical care.
Leroy Torres finally got answers about what was causing his shortness of breath and headaches in 2010. The surgeon had a photograph.
“He goes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing," Torres said. "It’s just like somebody had taken pepper and poured it on my lungs.”
He knew something was wrong when he started getting frequent respiratory infections in Iraq three years earlier.
“The burn pit in Balad, where I was stationed, was approximately ten acres,” Torres said. "“It’s like burning rubber and wood at the same time, when you smell burnt plastic, just a nasty stench.”
Torres is one of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who believe they’ve been sickened by burn pits. More than one hundred families believe those illnesses led to the deaths of their service members.
“I don’t think anybody in Washington would be comfortable if there was a ten-acre pit in their backyard, where they were burning blown up humvees, car paint cans, unused pharmaceuticals,” said Rosie Torres, Leroy's wife.
The Torres' non-profit created the first database to track veterans with burn pit health issues. More than five thousand are registered, including Sergeant John Marbutt and Colonel David McCraken. They both died of an aggressive brain cancer soon after tours in Iraq.
Tammy McCracken got to know the Torres' and learned of familiar stories of service men and women in perfect health, exposed to the same chemicals, receiving similar diagnoses when they returned home. A letter we got ahold of from the VA lists harmful chemicals including Benzene and TCDD, which is in agent orange, that were detected at Balad.
"I was just really shocked at what was being done," said McCracken. "There were no environmental laws applied overseas, it was just burn everything."
The Department of Veterans Affairs also keeps a burn pits registry, but changes to update the conditions, or even death, cannot be made once a veteran is entered.
“The VA is doing such an injustice to these veterans by not facilitating benefits and services that they are entitled to,” said Rosie Torres.
The VA says that’s false. Of the roughly 11, 500 disability claims including a burn pit related condition, about 23-hundred were granted. That spans more than a decade, from 2007 to 2018. Advocates argue there isn’t enough recognition that certain conditions are directly caused by burn pits. Veterans say they just want what was promised.
“We’re not asking for a handout, it’s just accountability," said Leroy Torres. "If we’re sent to war, we’re sent to do a job, all we’re asking is take care of us when we return.”
Leroy and Rosie just recently testified at a congressional hearing on the topic. In the meantime, officials at the VA say they're launching a study about the health effects of airborne hazards. Those findings are due next year.
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