Are We Poisoning Our Troops? Congress Takes Critical Step in Addressing Burn Pits in Iraq, Afghanistan

When our troops deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, they have enough to worry about from insurgents, snipers and roadside bombs. They shouldn't also have to worry about poison in the air they breathe.
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Veterans have heard time and again about their fellow troops falling ill after serving near burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Dennis Gogel was stationed in Balad twice between 2004 and 2006. He said he was in housing just a few hundred yards from the [burn] pit and would often jog past the pit. The 29-year old Gogel said that in the last two years he's had upper respiratory infections, skin irritation and he's lost 60 pounds since deployment.

"I have blotchy spots on my face. I was treated for psoriasis, but it won't go way," he said. Gogel said his doctors do not know what caused the problems.

Gogel said it has affected his fitness, too. "I used to run two miles in 10 minutes. I am up to 17," he said. -CNN

Already, seven class-action lawsuits are pending on behalf of troops and contractors who say they were sickened by burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. And at least one servicemember, Air Force Maj. Kevin Wilkins, may have died as a result of the toxic exposure.

These reports are troubling, but they may be only the beginning. For years, the military has been using burn pits to dispose of hazardous waste at its bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pits burn everything from dining and maintenance materials to waste from medical facilities. This practice has potentially exposed thousands of servicemembers to toxic air and poor health conditions.

Unfortunately, toxic exposure from the battlefield is not a new issue. Veterans of previous generations struggled for decades to have conditions such as Agent Orange exposure and Gulf War Syndrome recognized as service-connected. For decades, they were denied appropriate healthcare and benefits. Thanks to years of dedicated advocacy, these veterans now finally have the access to medical registries, treatment, and disability benefits they deserve. But our country cannot repeat this same pattern of denial and delay with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

I first wrote about this issue a few months back, when IAVA launched a campaign demanding that the defense contractor KBR "come clean" about their involvement in chemical exposure cases. We got dozens of reports from our members around the country who reported illnesses after serving near burn pits. And thousands of Americans took action and stood up for our troops. Yesterday, we saw some results.

Congress took a critical step forward to identifying and treating troops that may be suffering as a result of these burn pits. IAVA joined members of Congress, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), veterans and their families in a press conference on Capitol Hill to express support for the "Military Personnel War Zone Toxic Exposure Act" (H.R.2419), recently introduced by Representatives Tim Bishop and Carol Shea-Porter. This important legislation would establish a medical registry to help identify servicemembers exposed to toxins, and improve the care and benefits they receive. It would also limit the military's use of burn pits, so that other servicemembers aren't put at risk.

When our troops deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, they understand very well the dangers of combat. These brave men and women have enough to worry about from insurgents, snipers and roadside bombs. They shouldn't also have to worry about poison in the air they breathe. This legislation is the first step toward getting our veterans proper care. Congress must now move quickly to pass this legislation-- every second they waste means more lives at risk.

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