A bill to expand coverage for Vets affected by toxic exposure doesn’t cover some of the illnesses that women get
Lacy Hollings watched the billowing black smoke rise a hundred feet from her door and sensed a disaster waiting to happen. It was 2006, and she had been deployed to the Ghazi province in Afghanistan as an interrogator and linguist with the United States army. Every day, the dark cloud lingered, stinging her eyes, charring her lungs, and making it difficult to breathe.
What Hollings was seeing was a burn pit, an area roughly the size of a basketball court where all the waste from the base – human sewage, food, tires and metal – was discarded, doused in fuel, and then set on fire with a match. It had a pungently chemical smell and would sizzle and crackle.
The smoke lingered for months, making Hollings’s one-mile runs around the base increasingly unpleasant. She knew there was no way she could live so close to the burn pit and not go home sick, referring to it among friends as “a ticking timebomb”. Dark soot would spray into her tissue whenever she blew her nose, an ominous sign that the smoke had entered her body. And indeed, only a year after she returned home she discovered her first of five cancerous tumors.
Congress has finally recognized the dangers of burn pit exposure in the form of the Honoring Our Pact Act, a sweeping bipartisan bill that passed the House on 3 March 2022. The bill extends healthcare to 3.5 million Veterans affected by burn pit exposure, but it has yet to become law and will only protect Veterans with 23 registered conditions.
For female Veterans like Hollings, who make up about 17% of the US military, their exposure symptoms are often outside this list. And even in cases when they are included – like that of Catherine O’Connors, who deployed to Iraq with the marines in 2005 – it can take female Veterans years to access the benefits they deserve.
“This is just another instance where women Veterans are not acknowledged for their specific needs within the system,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, founder of the non-profit Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving. “Or, where their service-connected disabilities are not associated with where they were stationed.”
Rosie Torres, the founder of BurnPits360, an organization that supports Veterans suffering from toxic exposure and who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 23 years, says that even though the VA is a government administration, it could do more to help.
“I can’t even imagine what Veterans outside the system are going through against the bureaucracy within,” Torres said. “Even if they pass the Honor Our Pact, we will be adding illnesses to our list and calling on Congress to make these changes.”
When Hollings was told in the Bay Pines VA medical center in March 2021 that she needed yet another surgery, she felt nothing. A frank, unemotive voice in her head intoned, “OK, great, another tumor, where’s it at this time?” as her collected, outward self agreed to have the operation on 4 April.
This was the fifth serious health problem Hollings had since returning from Afghanistan in 2007 at the age of 27. The first was an ovarian cyst, the size of a softball, which was removed during her pregnancy. The next was a melanoma on her back, then came a parathyroid tumor, a rare growth in the four glands located around her neck. And finally, two blood clots the size of golf balls, the most recent of which Hollings was treated for last year.
“I know I am going to keep on finding tumors,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time until I find one too late.”
When Hollings graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, at 21, she was excited to join the army and put her years of linguistic training to good use. Although frustrated at being assigned to Afghanistan, where she couldn’t practice Arabic, she quickly fell in love with the place and the people.
Her optimism waned, however, when it was time to return to Indiana and deal with the arduous VA disability services.
As advised, Hollings claimed everything she could, noting the mental health problems she suffered as well as her exposure to burn pits, which she thought would lead to later health complications. She heard nothing for a year. Then she received a denial for the burn pit-related problems. She was given no chance to talk to anybody or get an explanation for her case.
Several times, she tried arguing on the phone, saying: “Look, these burn pits have caused these issues, caused my fibromyalgia. Here is the documentation, and here is why.”
Yet Hollings remembers the disability services responding, “Absolutely, you have these conditions; absolutely, they are disabling and terrifying. But there is no connection between these illnesses and burn pit exposure.”
Hollings does receive medical compensation for depressive disorder and chronic hip pain but says the VA still refuses to consider or acknowledge the causes of her other conditions. Now that her tumors have been removed, she says it is no longer considered a problem to the VA. But if she could get one more chance to talk to them again, she would say, “Quit dodging the bullet; it happened, do the right thing and pay for our injuries.”
On 12 March 2022, Catherine O’Connor left the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer hospital on New York’s Upper East Side and walked into Central Park with her yellow labrador. Her clothes were her usual, old, even – boots, sweatpants and a waterproof green jacket – but the scar that ran along her neck, visible still under the shadow of her chin, was new. As was the swelling of her right cheek caused by the operation she had just undergone.
O’Connor deployed to Iraq aged 20 as a cyber networks operator in the Marine Corps. Those days, the military seemed unconcerned about the toxicity of setting carcinogens on fire. Her job was to make sure that no one was stealing from the burn pits at the Al Asad airbase in which she was living, and where sensitive documents were destroyed. For 12 hours a day, O’Connor would drive around the vicinity, making sure no one stole from the dump. To the best of her memory, she remembers thinking this couldn’t be good for her.
“At 20, though,” she said, “everyone feels invincible.”
It wasn’t until O’Connor returned home in 2006 to continue her studies that she began to think about the consequences of living near the burn pits.
Fourteen years later, there were repercussions. In November 2021, O’Connor started feeling pain in her ear, as if she had been punched. When she went to a doctor, he said her ears were fine, but there was a lump in the back of her mouth that needed attention. A biopsy revealed salivary gland cancer, common only in people above 60. O’Connor was 38. “This is incredibly surprising,” said the oral surgeon.
O’Connor spent entire days on hold with the VA, trying to figure out whom to talk to or how to move forward. Luckily, as she worked as a lawyer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the firm covered her medical bills.
When she checked in for treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the best cancer hospitals in the world, O’Connor asked her surgeon about the burn pit connection. The Honor Our Pact legislation had been in the media frequently, and she wanted an expert opinion. “Environmental exposure may entirely be the cause,” he responded. “There is no hereditary explanation for your cancer.”
Surprisingly, his answer helped O’Connor cope with her condition. “There’s a feeling of ‘what did I do wrong?’ that comes with getting cancer,” she said. “The randomness of my diagnoses seemed so unfair, but knowing there could be a cause made me feel better.”
While O’Connor’s cancer was slow-growing, she often wishes she had found it earlier. The surgery took 12 hours, with the surgeon taking grafts from her hip and arm. “This could have been avoided” is a thought that often tortures her.
“While I know the science is just not there yet to confirm, I think if I could turn back time, and you could tell me that conclusively and absolutely that my condition was linked to my exposure, I would not have deployed.”