Fort Worth

What Are Toxic Burn Pits? Flower Mound Veteran Shares Experience

President Joe Biden plans to meet with veterans in Fort Worth Tuesday to discuss efforts to help veterans suffering from toxic exposures

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North Texas is expecting an important visitor on Tuesday. President Joe Biden will be in Fort Worth to meet with veterans.

His plan is to address the health effects of toxic exposures, like the burn pits that were common practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. He made that clear in last week's State of the Union when he called on Congress to pass a new law to ensure more veterans get the medical benefits they deserve.

He even addressed a potential connection to his own son Beau Biden's deadly brain cancer.

"When they came home, many of the world's fittest and best-trained warriors in the world were never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin. I know,” President Biden said during the State of the Union.

Two days after the president’s address, Congress did pass the new bill on Thursday by a vote of 256-174, with 34 Republicans joining all House Democrats in voting for it – but it still has to clear the Senate.

A soldier tosses unserviceable uniforms into a burn pit in Iraq on March 10, 2008.
Sr. Airman Julianne Showalter / DOD
A soldier tosses unserviceable uniforms into a burn pit in Iraq on March 10, 2008.

The new legislation is aimed at boosting health care services and disability benefits for veterans exposed to those toxic burn pits, which veterans say is a little-known topic to the general American public but has been a hot-button issue for decades.

The Department of Defense estimates that roughly 3.5 million service members could've been exposed to burn pits, a common practice especially during the wars in the Middle East.

'CONSTANTLY BURNING'

Veterans like Randy Guidry of Flower Mound told NBC 5 this is the kind of support he's waited more than 15 years for.

A Louisiana native, Guidry served in the National Guard for a decade throughout most of the 1990s. In 2003, he was deployed to Afghanistan to help build military bases.

During that time, the growing population there burned trash like tires, batteries, vehicles, electronics and medical waste – a common practice for the military during those operations.

"The first couple of times that I was next to it, I was telling some of my soldiers like, 'this can't be good.' You know? When we were there, we'd never had masks, we never had any kind of protection going over there,” he said. “They were constantly burning while we were there.”

Jet fuel was even used to start the fires, according to service members. Guidry said his sleeping tent was only half a mile from the burn site, with winds blowing thick, black smoke in his direction often.

Randy Guidry

He said simply smelling fuel at times in his day-to-day life brings back difficult memories.

"To this day that whenever I smell those fumes, that's pretty much first thing it does – is brings me straight back to there, because it reminds me of the burn pits,” Guidry said.

Guidry said before Afghanistan, he was healthy but ever since, he's suffered from major respiratory issues and chronic migraines.

Now, like so many other veterans, he worries about cancer.

“I have to use a daily inhaler and if I didn't use it, I constantly feel like I was out of breath. I have a rescue inhaler that I've had to use on top of my daily inhaler every so often,” he said. “It's just steadily gotten worse over the years and it's getting worse now.”

DENIED BENEFITS

Guidry said he tried to seek health care services and support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but like so many other veterans in his situation, he was denied because the VA doesn't acknowledge a connection between the burn pits and health issues despite ample evidence from doctors. There is also a lengthy and difficult process to prove the connection to claims officials.

“I believe our taxpayers would be aghast if they understood how much time, effort and money goes into denying claims by veterans. The saying among the vets is that the motto of the Veteran’s Administration is, ‘Deny, deny, and hope they die,’”  said Grace Weatherly, a civil trial lawyer who has represented Guidry in a claim for benefits resulting from exposure to the burn pits.

“It has been over 20 years since the 9/11 attack and the resulting rush of volunteers to serve our country. Those veterans were healthy and credible when the government decided they were good enough to defend our U.S. interests in the Middle East, why are they presumed to be liars and scam artists when they come home asking for medical care and disability benefits?” she added.

Randy Guidry
Randy Guidry with his family

Guidry said he has had to pay out of pocket for his treatments and medications.

“Some people unfortunately probably have to make the decision of not paying rent, or not to pay for medications, or medical bills. Or don't pay for food," he said.

His attorney said while the new legislation offers a permanent solution for veterans exposed to burn pits, there’s still more to the issue.

“What is not being discussed is that the regulations governing these claims, which are adopted by the Department of Defense, can be modified without a Congressional vote,” explained Weatherly. “The definition of “Southwest Asia” right now excludes Afghanistan, so veterans who were deployed to Afghanistan do not enjoy the protection of ‘presumed service connection' for symptoms that have no clear cause, such as those experienced by many who were exposed to the burn pits.”

She said those deployed to Iraq and other countries in the area have used that service connection presumption for otherwise unexplained physical conditions and symptoms often referred to as “Gulf War Syndrome.”

“Gulf War Syndrome was originally thought to be caused in large part by exposure to particulate matter in the atmosphere such as dust and sand. Our veterans of the Gulf War were not armored with masks or PPE of any kind despite the obviously poor air quality caused by dust and sand storms,” Weatherly said. “Now, it has become apparent that in addition to the dust and sand, our Gulf War Veterans were breathing in toxic fumes from burn pits.”

Weatherly said because the toxins have been identified by the Department of Veterans Affairs to be associated with a laundry list of medical conditions, including cancer, there’s a chance that immediate action can be taken sooner than the new bill can pass.

“The exclusion of veterans deployed to Afghanistan could still be fixed tomorrow, if Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, instructs the Department to do so,” she said.

NEW EFFORTS OFFER HOPE

Still, efforts in Washington are a signal of hope for veterans.

In November, the White House announced that soldiers exposed to burn pits who developed any of three specific ailments — asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis — within 10 years can receive disability benefits.

The recently passed House bill builds on that effort with nearly two dozen presumptive conditions, and possibly more to come in ensuing years.

If the new bill passes the Senate and becomes law, it would increase spending by more than $300 billion over the next decade.

It would open up the Department of Veterans Affairs health care to those millions exposed to burn pits, even if they don't have a service-connected disability.

The bill would also give new or increased disability benefits to thousands of veterans who have become ill with cancer or respiratory conditions such as bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. The VA would presume that veterans developed their illness as a result of exposure to toxic substances during their service.

The bill also provides for retroactive benefits to veterans whose disability claims have been denied and to survivors of deceased veterans.

"There's a lot of veterans out there that are suffering from the same kind of things I'm going through and don't even know why,” said Guidry. "It's taken me almost eight, nine years and I still haven't got final resolution on mine. I'm hoping with this new legislation that will change. But you know, if you are having these issues, go get checked out. File all those claims so that you can get the help that you've earned."

According to NBC News, this relief goes beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. It also adds hypertension to the list of illnesses that Vietnam veterans are presumed to have developed because of exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.

Opponents of the bill say the influx of cases could weigh down an already stressed VA system, potentially leading to longer wait times for health care and processing claims.

But supporters say it's a clear sign from Congress that veterans exposed to toxic substances are suffering, something President Biden is expected to discuss in detail in Fort Worth on Tuesday.

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