Breathe Easier

02.02.15 10:45 AM ET

Vets Can Finally Sue Contractors for Cancer Caused by War

After the Supreme Court found that KBR could be sued over the burn pits it operated on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2008, I received a memo from an Air Force bioenvironmental flight commander, Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, saying that the troops at Air Base Balad were being exposed to “an acute health hazard.”

At that point, no one had reported on the burn pits, which were used by the military and its contractors to dispose of trash at almost every base in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reporters figured everyone could see them—flames from Balad’s pit rose so high pilots used it as a landmark—so they must be OK.

But the troops were worried. Commanders feared for their own health. And nobody wanted to see the dog who wandered the base with amputated body parts in his mouth that he had dug out of the burn pit.

At Balad, fire consumed 240 tons of trash in an open pit every day. Black smoke billowed across the base. Tinier bases had tinier pits, but those pits burned everything from Styrofoam to old computers to unexploded ordnance.

I talked to hundreds of people who believed they were sick from the burn pits. Airmen who had been stationed a mile up the road from Balad’s pit returned with respiratory diseases, immune-system issues and cancer. One hopeful young combat vet died within weeks of my conversation with her.

The reporting led to Congressional hearings, a ban on burn pits and a burn pit registry. But it’s not enough.

Recently, the Supreme Court found that lawsuits against the American contractor that operated the burn pits, KBR, could move forward. KBR had argued that it couldn’t be sued because it had operated the burn pits for the government. The Court issued no statement, but the lawsuits will go back to trial courts.

This brings me hope for all of our veterans—not just those involved in this case.

I figure there’s money to be made on those class-action suits, and, therefore, money will finally be poured into trying to ascertain what troops were exposed to, as well as the effects of those exposures. That means veterans could ultimately get the benefits and health care they’ve earned, rather than the run-around I’ve heard about for seven years as vets try to get help.

Hopefully, there will be more interest in respiratory ailments, neurological disorders, cancers, and cardiovascular issues we’ve watched skyrocket—according to the Defense Department’s own records—as service members have deployed.

This is a new hope. As a journalist, first for Military Times and then for USA TODAY, I’ve paid close attention to how one out of four of the people who deployed in 1991 became sick, but were initially told it was psychological. I’ve read the studies about Agent Orange, and seen vets fight for decades for benefits that seem obvious.

And, as the burn-pit story has played out, I’ve watched as the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs quashed research, downplayed outside reports and set up as legitimate their own studies that were ultimately ridiculed by national research organizations, yet still listed as good information for the troops.

I’ve kept track of 13 years’ worth of military morbidity reports. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increased steadily from a rate of 98 cases per 10,000 in 2001 to 218 per 10,000 in 2009, before going back down to 147 in 2013. About 92 percent of COPD cases are diagnosed in people older than 45, according to the American Lung Association—not in healthy service members, only 9 percent of whom are older than 41. Chronic sinusitis increased from a rate of 71 in 2001, to 245 in 2009. Cardiovascular symptoms increased from 224 in 2001 to 280 in 2009. Tumors increased from 91 in 2001 to 2005 in 2009. Symptoms of neurologic conditions increased from 70 in 2001 to 252 in 2009.

The suits say KBR’s actions resulted in illnesses and death. That seems like an obvious assumption: In the United States, we are not allowed to burn trash in large open pits because it’s a health hazard.

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I talked to Bob Miller, a pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2010 who performed biopsies on the lungs of dozens of service members. Troops with the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell had returned from their deployment unable to run fast enough to pass their physical-fitness tests, but their pulmonary function tests came back normal and chest X-rays showed nothing.

But the biopsies showed that more than 50 of these guys had constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare disease that blocks the smallest passageways of the lungs. The military stopped sending their soldiers to Miller, causing concern that sick troops could not prove there was anything wrong, either to gain access to treatment or for benefits.

Anthony Szema, a second doctor who works for the Northport VA Medical Center, determined that service members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan had higher rates of asthma than did troops who didn’t deploy. About 11 percent of service members have respiratory symptoms, he said.

But VA’s burn pit website states, “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems.”

An Army information page for health providers states that an Institute of Medicine report “noted U.S. Department of Defense air quality monitoring data measured levels of [particulate matter] higher than generally considered safe by U.S. regulatory agencies.” But it does not state that the report found DoD’s monitoring data laughable, and that the sampling sites “did not target smoke episodes.” They didn’t know how often people were exposed, what was in the smoke or how thick it was.

Troops can tell you. It settled like smog over their housing areas, leaving a layer of black soot on their furniture and turning wet towels placed over air conditioners black by morning.

And, the head of the IOM study said “years of work” show an association for smoke inhalation with respiratory and heart disease.

This is why the ruling excites me: We know from conflicts past that VA and the Defense Department will not rush to help people affected by the burn pits. Just as with Agent Orange and Gulf War illness, the government needs civilian help and oversight to figure this one out.

But here’s another thought: Dioxin is one of the toxins released when burning trash—the same chemical that caused issues in Agent Orange.

If we had addressed, researched, created treatments and believed the troops back in the 1970s when they became sick, it’s possible we would know exactly what to do for this generation’s veterans.

Kelly Kennedy is director of veterans’ outreach and public affairs at Bergmann & Moore, a national law firm that helps veterans with benefits appeals cases.