Veterans say burn pit exposure is causing long-term illness | WHEC.com

Veterans say burn pit exposure is causing long-term illness

Jennifer Lewke
Updated: November 12, 2020 06:39 PM
Created: November 12, 2020 03:09 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Hundreds of thousands of combat veterans who lived and slept next to massive pits of garbage while deployed say the constant smoke from the trash being burned has impacted their long-term health. The vets, their doctors, advocates, and some federal lawmakers are now fighting to get the Veterans Administration (VA) to cover the care.  

Joe Chenelly grew up in Fairport. He is a Marine who was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. The bases where he lived were set up in the middle of the desert. Any and all trash created was burned.

"Some of the burn pits are larger than a football field," Chenelly said. "They were cleared out by bulldozers. Anything and everything that needed to be disposed of was thrown in there from tires to medical waste."

Electronics, human waste, even vehicles, went into the burn pits, too, and then it was all lit on fire, often with jet fuel.

"When I was in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, we were within probably not quite a football field away, and depending on which direction the wind would blow, you would smell it," Chenelly said. "Our uniforms would smell like that smoke. There would be times where you couldn’t see as far away as you and I are standing right now."

This means, for the troops, there was no avoiding it.

“There really was no way to prevent breathing it in," Chenelly said. "Sometimes you would wake up and you would have ashes on you from them at night."

Since returning home, hundreds of thousands of veterans have gotten sick. They, and many of their doctors, believe it’s from the toxic fumes.

“I personally know of about a dozen service members who have passed away," Chenelly said. "Their doctors told them that their respiratory issues and heart issues were in all likelihood a direct result of that exposure. It was pretty constant."

The VA admits there are toxins in the smoke but maintains that most of the health effects are temporary. A spokesman for the VA points to a study, recently published by the National Academy of Sciences that found “insufficient evidence” to link the burn pits to cancer or other illnesses. Veterans outreach groups say they have a sense of déjà vu.

"As we've seen with our Vietnam veterans and Agent Orange…delay until they die,” Chenelly said.

Actor and comedian Jon Stewart, who worked to get coverage for those sickened after working in the toxic 9/11 wreckage, has now joined the fight to get the VA to offer a presumptive benefit to these veterans. Meaning, if someone served where a burn put was in use and he/she gets sick, it should be presumed the illness was caused by the burn pit exposure and their care and claims should be covered. 

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand agrees, saying right now 8 in every 10 veterans that have gone to the VA with burn pit-related disability claims, have been denied.

"These veterans go to the VA for care, and the VA asks them to spend months, or even years, jumping through hoops to prove that their illnesses were linked to this burn pit exposure, and then the VA says, 'the science isn't there' and denies coverage for the medications and treatments that these veterans so desperately need to survive,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand points out that while the study the VA points to can’t prove a direct link, it doesn’t disprove one either. 

"The VA continues to claim that there's just not enough evidence that these ailments are service-connected, but we do have the evidence," she said. "We know what was burned. We know what was in the soil. We know that the toxic fumes and environmental conditions are so hazardous that the DOD [Department of Defense] recently changed the rules."

The DOD now uses incinerators or local trash removal contracts instead of burn puts. 

Chenelly, as the executive director of AMVETS, understands the VA is in a tight spot.

"There's probably some fairness in saying if we were to issue this massive list of presumptive and suddenly it's open up to 6 million people, it could break the system,” he said, adding that there has to be a more streamlined process for those who need the benefits to get them and get them quickly. 

In deciding burn pit claims, the VA says it is simply adhering to the eligibility requirements for VA disability compensation that Congress established. It encourages any veteran who feels their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence available. 

The VA has granted service connection for various ailments associated with burn pits but does so on an individual, case-by-case basis after review of a veteran’s case.


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