ATLANTA - 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.
Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Nicole Carr spent two months talking to victims about the problem.
“I was beyond exhausted. I was tired of the pain, the headaches,” said Iraq War veteran Leroy Torres.
In 2010, he finally got answers about what was causing his shortness of breath and headaches. The surgeon had a photograph of Torres' lungs.
“He goes, ‘I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It’s just like somebody had taken pepper and poured it on my lungs,’” said Torres.
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 10 acres,” said Torres.
He described the burn pit's strong odor, saying “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 100 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 10-acre pit in their backyard where they were burning blown-up Humvees, car paint cans, unused pharmaceuticals,” said Leroy’s wife, Rosie Torres.
The couple’s nonprofit, Burn Pits 360, created the first database to track veterans with health issues caused by burn pits. More than 5,000 veterans are registered. Six Georgians are on the list, including Sgt. John Marbutt and Colonel David McCracken. They both died of an aggressive brain cancer soon after serving tours in Iraq.
His widow, Tammy McCracken, described her husband’s last words.
“He looked over and whispered to me, he was like ‘Tell me I did a good job.’ And I was like, 'Of course you did a good job. You did a fantastic job.' And that was the last thing he said.”
Tammy McCracken got to know the Torres family and learned of familiar stories of service mmembers in perfect health who were exposed to the same chemicals receiving similar diagnoses when they returned home.
Channel 2 got a copy of a Department of Veterans Affairs letter that 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 that there were no environmental laws applied overseas. It was just 'burn everything',” said Tammy McCracken.
The VA 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 told us that is false. It said that, of the 11,581 disability claims including a burn pit-related condition, about 2,300 were granted between June 2007 and November 30, 2018.
The VA sent us a statement that reads, in part:
“VA encourages all veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence available. VA has granted service connection for various ailments associated with burn pits, and does so on an individual, case-by-case basis after review of a veteran’s case.”
But advocates argue there isn’t enough recognition that certain conditions are directly caused by burn pits.
“We’re not going to guess at what we’re doing. We’re going to take all the information we can collect, and the presumed benefit veterans can presume they can get if they ever contract a disease,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who is chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affiars.
Carr asked Isakson about reports that some burn pits destroyed waste in areas where weapons of mass destruction were stored. “I’m not going to say anybody made a mistake doing anything. I say it would have been a mistake to leave it,” Isakson answered.
Veterans told us they just want what was promised. “We’re not asking for a handout. It’s just accountability. 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,” said Leroy Torres.
The VA told us it is in the process of hiring the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study the health effects of airborne hazards. The findings are due in mid-2020.
Isakson is planning to schedule a hearing on burn pits in May.
Rosie Torres recently met with comedian Jon Stewart, who is an advocate for the 9/11 first responders who got sick. He shared strategies with her to help get coverage for burn pit victims.
Burn Pits 360 is planning a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. on April 30.
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