As an Air Force lab technician at Camp Tallil in southern Iraq, Wesley Archuleta had the task of burning medical waste — body parts, surgical remains and blood bags that would “go off like grenades” in the flames.
Fifty feet from where he deposited his grisly loads, workers fed an open-air burn pit with just about anything imaginable from the modern battlefield: chemicals, weapons, munitions, metals and plastics.
“You name it, they burned it,” said Archuleta, 47, of San Antonio, who suffers from tremors, a chronic cough and shortness of breath.
Enrique Diaz, of Houston, an Air Force engineer deployed at Camp Speicher in Northern Iraq, would watch as contractors backed up to a burn pit a quarter-mile from where he slept to deposit chemicals, plastics and assorted waste.
Diaz’s worsening health problems led to his separation from the military for asthma. Diaz, 44, who could run six miles a decade ago, now takes three asthma medications and suffers from headaches and a sinus condition that landed him in emergency rooms this spring.
Like thousands of others who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Texans are pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs to acknowledge that their health problems stemmed from haphazard burning and grant them the care and the benefits that accompany service-connected injury.
As of mid-July, nearly 150,000 service members and retirees had signed up for the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, according to the VA. Texas had 15,224 of the enrollees, nearly double the number from the next closest state, California.
Yet the sheer volume of problems being reported thus far has been insufficient to prompt the Veterans’ agency to devise specialized care for burn pits victims and grant more compensation.
According to figures made public this month, the VA has granted burn pits compensation for just 2,097 burn pits victims in 11 years. The tax-free disability awards are calculated according to severity of the condition and can range from $100 monthly up to $2,000, money that sick Veterans say can make a big difference in their lives.
Many Veterans of recent wars, among them Reservists and National Guard, have lung ailments and other afflictions that they say make it difficult to hold a job. There’s also the matter of compensation to survivors. As it stands, relatively few surviving spouses and dependent children of victims would qualify for death benefits awarded for other injuries and diseases.
Amber Powell, of San Antonio, was an Army medic with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan who lived and worked close to the burn pits. She suffers now from an array of neurological and gastrointestinal ailments so severe that she is 100 percent disabled and receives home health care visits from a VA medical team.
Yet the VA has been unsympathetic to her burn pits claims which, she says, prevents the linkage that would help provide for her children if she were not around.
“I’m 34 years old, I’ve lost two careers, and I have two children, ages 6 and 8, to raise. If I die from burn pits exposure, they would get no compensation,” said Powell, a massage therapist until becoming too ill to work.
Congress is pushing VA, too
Pressured by Veterans, Congress is taking a new look at the toxic wounds of war as the costs, both in money and human health, become clearer. Last month, the House passed legislation forcing the VA to extend benefits to 90,000 “Blue Water Navy” Veterans from the Vietnam War, many of whom suffer cancers and other ailments from exposure to Agent Orange herbicide while serving off-shore.
On July 18, in a contentious meeting on Capitol Hill that was closed to the media, a dozen House members from both parties grilled VA officials about how they will respond to the needs of burn pits victims. The approval rate for burn pits compensation is roughly one-third that for most other injuries, the representatives noted.
The lawmakers were especially irked at the Pentagon, which declined to send a representative or provide records on some 260 burn pits that Congress says are needed to tackle the problem.
“If they don’t come because they want to, they should come because they have to,” fumed Louisiana Republican Clay Higgins, who pressed for subpoenas, according to a transcript obtained by Hearst Newspapers.
Officials at the Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.
Rosie Torres, co-founder of Burn Pits 360, a Texas-based national advocacy group invited to the gathering, told the VA that 6,000 people have signed up for a registry the group maintains separately from the VA. Over 100 of them are death entries from families, she said.
After a VA official declared that more research is needed, Torres, who worked at the VA for 23 years, asked: “How do we take care of Veterans who are sick and dying right now?”
The VA’s Dr. Ralph Erickson, the agency’s chief consultant for post-deployment health, acknowledged the challenges.
“This is a big issue. This is a very important issue and VA does own it,” he said. “Right now, we’re playing catch-up.”
Wesley Archuleta wants answers, too. He signed up for the VA registry two years ago but never heard back from the government. His frustration matches that of many Veterans who enrolled in the congressionally ordered registry, which was the subject of a withering report last year by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.
The Institute concluded that the VA asks confusing and repetitive questions, seeks useless information and fails to seek answers “that could yield information related to relevant exposures.”
A VA spokeswoman said by email that some of the questions are being “refined.”
Archuleta stands to gain nothing more in compensation beyond what he already receives for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ailments. His hope, he says, is that he and others avoid the fate of his Vietnam Veteran father, who suffered for decades until long after the war, when the VA finally acknowledged illnesses related to Agent Orange after being ordered to do so by Congress in 1991.
“I have the feeling that we’ll keep going down the same road with burn pits until the VA is forced not to ignore us,” he said.
Warnings of burn pit hazards were ignored
Reports from the battlefield warned of the threat. In 2006, a memo from an environmental officer in Iraq, Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, referred to the fires at Balad Air Base in central Iraq as “an acute health hazard” which could produce chronic health problems. He listed more than a dozen possible carcinogens from the smoke.
“Burn pits may have been an acceptable practice in the past, however today’s solid waste contains materials that were not present in the past that can create hazardous compounds,” he wrote.
Yet open-air burning at Balad persisted for three more years until incinerators were installed, according to Pentagon documents.
In Iraq and later in Afghanistan, retired Lt. Col. Daniel Brewer had the task of monitoring burn pits for the United States military. He was alarmed at what he saw. A decade later, he may be experiencing the consequences he warned about.
Brewer described his disbelief at being ignored when complaining to higher-ups about indiscriminate burning. During two years in Iraq and later in back-to-back tours in Afghanistan, he spent days at a time on the road inspecting burn pits and assessing other environmental dangers.
“There’s a lot of ways a soldier can die from war, and a bullet’s not the only one,” he said.
Brewer provided photographs, a video and an incident report he submitted in 2009 from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan after tracking down the source of a massive column of black smoke and flames visible from a mile away. A contractor at the site told him that “sensitive” items were burned every night.
“Whether it was a little camp of 50 people or a base camp of thousands, the solution was to dig a hole and start burning. A burn pit would be established on one side of a base. Then, as the base grew, there would be housing surrounding it with people breathing all those fumes at night,” he said.
“Everything got thrown in — tires, plastics, weapons, even unused ammunition that would start going off. I’m amazed somebody didn’t get killed.”
Brewer, 66, of Leesburg, Ga., an environmental engineer with a Ph.D., pressed for adoption of incinerators that slowly came into use.
In 2009, he found himself in Tampa in a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command. After the meeting, Petraeus authorized adoption of new environmental regulations for Pentagon contingency operations that Brewer had authored. The new rules governed a range of matters, from disposing hazardous materials to cultural preservation.
In a routine physical exam last year, Brewer, never a smoker, got the worrisome news that a nodule had formed on a lung. He must return for more testing to learn whether it’s cancerous.
“You have all these people who served with illnesses now, with pulmonary issues and cancers. And I’m one of them,” he said.
Network of Texas victims appeals to Trump
The government’s halting progress in taking responsibility is felt especially hard in south Texas, where Burn Pits 360, located in Robstown, has evolved into a small but dynamic operation lobbying in Washington, counseling Veterans across the country and pressing Texas officials to begin a state registry of victims.
Burn Pits 360 grew out of the hardship of Le Roy Torres, an Iraq Veteran and former Texas state trooper who has serious health issues.
Torres, 44, a retired Army captain who deployed at Balad, was diagnosed in 2010 with a debilitating lung condition, constrictive bronchiolitis. In May, after having trouble with his memory and concentration, Torres underwent a brain scan in Colorado.
A copy of the scan provided by his family referred to changes in his brain tissue consistent with toxic neurological disorders and referred to Torres’ clinical history “of burn pit exposure.”
In a letter to President Donald Trump last month, Torres asked the president to use his bully pulpit to educate Americans “about what has so shamefully become this generation’s Agent Orange.”
Rosie Torres said she worries about her husband’s health, which has deteriorated to the point where he was unable to accompany her to Washington this month to meet with members of Congress.
“There’s no reason our men and women should be returning from war begging the nation for specialized health care. This is hard for me to wrap my head around,” she said.
San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro is among those championing the victims’ cause, writing a bill that would expand care and enable compensation.
Castro introduced another bill last month to fill in one of the VA registry’s gaps by allowing a family member to enroll on behalf of a service member who has died. Family participation - prohibited by the VA — would allow families to document the fate of victims, Castro said.
“These are things that they shouldn’t have to be dealing with at a young age,” he said of Texans who told him their stories.