Burn baby, burn

A U.S. soldier uses a bulldozer to maneuver refuse into a burn pit in Iraq. About 3,700 Palmetto State veterans have put their stories on a registry claiming they have severe health ailments as a result of the decision to burn waste. The smoke has affected their skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs through multiple diseases and cancers. Provided/Department of Defense

Thousands of South Carolina's Iraq and Afghanistan veterans carry the weight of war on their lungs. 

They suffer from shortness of breath, cancer and disease, and blame toxic smoke inhalation from smoldering trash burned in the desert at the request of the government.

After the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11, America's sons and daughters were jettisoned into wars in two foreign countries. The military, in a hurry, propped up forward operating bases in the middle of the desert and asked for assistance from private contractors for basic needs, such as waste removal.

Contractors had a simple solution: Burn the trash. Despite warnings from military officials on the ground about possible harm, the Department of Defense went ahead with the burn pits. 

About 3,700 Palmetto State veterans have put their stories on a registry claiming they have severe health ailments as a result of the decision to burn waste. The smoke has affected their skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs through multiple diseases and cancers.

As these Iraq and Afghanistan survivors wait on legislation to push through the cogs of Congress, time is running out for some. 

The issue of burn pits became a nearly decadelong legal battle that would stretch from the smallest state courtrooms to the U.S. Supreme Court. Overall, more than 3.5 million veterans reported to the Department of Veterans Affairs they may have been exposed to airborne toxins since the War on Terror started.

"The military recognized that there were certain health risks associated with the use of burn pits, but balanced those risks against the greater risk of harm to military and other personnel should other methods of waste management be utilized," Roger W. Titus, a U.S. district judge in Maryland, wrote in a July 2017 ruling. 

Iraq Hazardous Waste

U.S. Army soldiers burn garbage at K-wal combat outpost in the village of Shakarat, in the Diyala province north of Baghdad. About 3,700 Palmetto State veterans have put their stories on a registry claiming they have severe health ailments as a result of the decision to burn waste.  File/AP

In January, the lawsuit against those private contractors was stymied. KBR Inc., one of the largest contractors responsible for managing overseas burn pits, argued it was acting under military supervision and not liable in the case. It was successful, and the lawsuit was dropped. To this day, the contractor claims its burn pits were operated safely. 

Now veterans' advocates are setting their sights on politicians to hold the military responsible. Even Jon Stewart, the American comedian and former "Daily Show" TV host, has joined the cause and is raising awareness about burn pits one month after he helped secure lifetime benefits for 9/11 first responders.

The VA claims research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits. A voluntary registry was created, but advocates believe it doesn't contain all the necessary data for medical researchers. 

"We're long overdue in getting the medical and financial assistance they gravely need," Stewart said in a statement last month.

A bill aimed at addressing the issue recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Charleston Democrat, delivered a floor speech supporting it. The bill seeks to expand information provided on the registry, possibly paving the way for more research on burn pits. It still has a long way to go before making it to President Donald Trump's desk. 

"Some came home from the war and others came home maimed or wounded. Others returned suffering from illnesses that they attributed to their exposure to smoke coming from open burn pits," Titus said. 

'Health hazard'

Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis was in charge of evaluating environmental health hazards at Balad Air Base in Iraq. When he was in the desert, he saw the plumes of smoke rising from the camp. He was immediately concerned. 

Smoke from everything ranging from plastics and Styrofoam to chemicals and oils were contaminating the air. Based on his studies, Curtis cited an “acute health hazard” to troops from the plumes of fumes the burn pits generated around the clock.

“Open pit burning may only be practical when it is the only available option and should only be used in the interim until other ways of disposal can be found," he wrote in his report. "This interim fix should not be years, but more in the order of months.”

But there wasn't an immediate fix. 

Lawsuits began popping up all over the country. Some of them were from the Palmetto State.

In 2009, a lawsuit was filed by a dozen South Carolina residents who claimed their skin and lungs were deteriorating from exposure to the burn pits. 

Alex Harley of Goose Creek was among them. As a contractor in Iraq between 2006 and 2007, he installed radios in Humvees. The father of two said he had no health problems before the first of his two six-month contracts. But he had pneumonia and eventually developed severe bronchitis after returning from his first job. 

He told The Post and Courier in 2010 that he was suffering from a variety of illnesses, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, severe muscle and joint pain and various skin rashes. 

“They burned human waste from port-a-potties and medical waste from the hospital on-base,” Harley said at the time. “Tractor-loads of everything and anything.”

Afghanistan

A solider burns trash at Badel Combat Out Post in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan near Pakistan border in 2011. File/AP

Another person who said he got sick is Derrol Turner, also from Goose Creek. He returned from the Air Force's Joint Base Balad in 2005 with a chronic cough and shortness of breath. A doctor told him his lungs looked as if he had been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years. He never smoked a cigarette, he told the Post and Courier in 2009. 

The technical sergeant in the Air Force Reserve said Balad was burning medical waste. His breathing had deteriorated heavily. 

"I've got shortness of breath, and I've got shorter shortness of breath," Turner said in a 2009 interview. 

Neither Harley or Turner returned phone calls requesting comment. 

Because the cases were all so similar, 43 suits were consolidated for a federal judge in Maryland to review in April 2010. 

Columbia native James Ledlie, an Army veteran, was one of the main lawyers in the multi-district litigation that eventually went before the Supreme Court. He said the suffering of veterans can't be disputed.

“There was no question that their suffering was related to particulates from burn pits,” Ledlie said. “Our soldiers had to be checked off as being fighting-ready when they returned, and suddenly they can’t run up stairs or run 2 miles. There's something wrong with that." 

After going through every phase of the U.S. court system, the ending argument was that even though KBR was directed by the U.S. military to burn tires and medical waste next to soldiers' barracks, they were absolved of liability.

The Supreme Court declined to hear one last appeal by the veterans in January, absolving the contractor of wrongdoing. 

"At the limited number of bases where KBR operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military," KBR spokeswoman Brenna Hapes said in a statement. "The government’s best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded there is no link between any long-term health issues and burn pit emissions."

'Our generation's Agent Orange'

Ledlie had taken the fight all the way through each level of the court system with his firm Motley Rice in Mount Pleasant. The justice system fell short, in his eyes. And it came time for politicians to step up. 

“When the court system can’t provide a remedy, then the veteran community is left to appeal to Congress," he said.

The VA had instructed the nonprofit Institute of Medicine to look into the connection between the respiratory issues facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and these overseas burn pits.

A subsequent report in 2011 determined that while toxins were generally higher than what seemed safe by environmental agencies, there wasn't enough evidence to make a direct connection. 

"It is not possible to say whether these emissions could cause long-term health effects," a statement from the Institute of Medicine said. 

The issue of burn pits mirrors the struggle that Vietnam-era veterans had with exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide sprayed in the jungle and believed to have contaminated water even for those serving offshore. Contact is believed to have caused numerous heart and health issues. 

It took nearly four decades since the war in Vietnam ended for the VA and congress to established a "presumption of service connection," meaning that any veteran who served in the same environment where the contamination occurred could get corresponding benefits. 

Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans exposed to burn pits are still fighting for that presumption of service connection, Ledlie said. 

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About 3,700 Palmetto State veterans have put their stories on a registry claiming they have severe health ailments as a result of the decision to burn waste. Provided/Department of Defense

In 2014, the VA Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry was established. It allowed veterans to fill out a questionnaire to collect additional data. But it didn't have all that was necessary. The form does not permit service members to submit updated health information or for a dependent to submit a death entry by proxy.

In March, Cunningham urged colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass the Burn Pits Registry Enhancement Act, which would allow for updated information to be added to the questionnaire. It passed unanimously in the House. 

Cunningham said it was a necessary step. He told The Post and Courier that the additional information could be crucial to medical researchers who are trying to substantiate the connection between smoldering garbage and respiratory illness. 

"Information is power," he said. "This is our generation's Agent Orange. We don't want to wait 30 or 40 years like we have with those veterans. We want to get ahead of this, we want to get in front of this. We want to understand what damage this is causing." 

Every representative, Republican and Democrat, voted for the bill. The only exception was Rep. Joe Wilson, a Columbia-area Republican. He did not vote, according to congressional records.  

Before becoming a law, the bill still has to pass the Senate and be signed by the president.

Despite the years of legal battles, despite thousands of veterans sharing stories of their ailments and despite warnings from officials back during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, burn pits are still used as a method of waste disposal by the military. 

"Burn pits are used during contingency operations only in circumstances in which no alternative disposal method is feasible ...," DOD spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said. "We are concerned that toxins from burn pit emissions may pose health risks and we are assessing potential long-term impacts."

Ledlie dedicated practically a decade of his life to trying to be a voice for these veterans. He's sad the courts fell short. 

“When I was serving, I was asked that I put myself in harm's way,” Ledlie said. “I didn’t think the greatest danger would come from civilian contractors. We let down our military community and we didn’t work hard enough.” 

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on crime, growth and development as well as military issues in Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Previously, he was a reporter at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.