Veterans Exposed To Burn Pits May Face Greater Risk Of Getting Sick, And Many Aren’t Being Helped

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U.S. military veterans who spent time around burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to suffer from compromised respiratory systems, prompting asthma, emphysema, and rare lung disorders. That puts them at further risk of dying from the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Legislators are now calling in the Department of Veterans Affairs to reach out to the 3.5 million veterans who have been exposed to burn pits and provide them with the care they need.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, asked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to “prioritize efforts to ensure that these brave men and women are able to safely receive care during the current public health crisis.”

The letter urges the VA to follow its own COVID-19 Response Plan, which extends counseling services to veterans with service-related respiratory issues. However, many VA centers have been limited to offering those services over telehealth channels, whether or not they can even facilitate that communication.

Source: U.S. Department of Defense
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq.


Klobuchar and Rounds contend that many veterans are being denied these services. Meanwhile, forcing those veterans to make an in-person visit to their VA centers puts them further at risk as personal protection equipment may be short supply.

“According to the Plan, many veterans who access RCS do so at a local Vet Center; however, it also states that not all Vet Centers are telehealth ready,” the letter states. “In addition to this technology gap, we also have concerns about the safety and preparedness of RCS staff. It is important that staff have the necessary medical equipment and supplies, including masks, gloves, and sanitation supplies, to safely interact with and provide services to veterans visiting their facilities for telehealth appointments and other essential business.”

Source: flickr/Special IG for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Smoke and toxic fumes from a burn pit rise from smoldering garbage.


“We are deeply concerned that at least some veterans screened by VA, identified as having symptoms presumed to be COVID-19 and told by VA screeners their symptoms are most likely COVID-19, are then being denied or otherwise prevented from receiving testing for the COVID-19 virus,” the senators wrote.

For millions of veterans, working, eating, and sleeping near toxic fumes from burning plastic and rubber was once a part of daily life. The massive burn pits located at U.S. military bases overseas generate thick black clouds of smoke that can be seen from miles away. Many of those stationed near the pits have developed serious respiratory issues, though the VA still disputes any long-term health issues from working in such an environment.

Source: flickr/Special IG for Afghanistan Reconstruction
An open air burn pit at FOB Sharana.


The VA’s Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry page maintains that the symptoms associated with burn pit exposure are “temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone.”

The VA has since updated its landing pages with COVID-19 warnings, indicating that older veterans and those with compromised systems are at a higher risk of contracting the disease, though no mention of burn pit exposure is made.

” Those who may be at higher risk for more severe complications from COVID-19 include adults age 65 or over; smokers; those who reside in a nursing home or long-term care facility; and those who have an underlying health condition such as chronic lung disease, asthma, a serious heart condition, breathing problems, diabetes, severe obesity, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, or are immunocompromised,” the VA website sates. “Veterans who do not have these risk factors are not at an increased risk for illness severity based on the best available scientific and clinical information.”

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans who have been exposed to burn pit fumes have returned home with respiratory conditions, some life-threatening.


According to Military.com, five different veterans organizations sent Wilkie another letter on March 31, stressing concerns over the VA’s capacity to test patients at centers across the country. Signed by signed by the Association of the United States Navy, Burn Pits 360, the National Vietnam & Gulf War Veterans Coalition, the Non Commissioned Officers Association, Sergeant Sullivan Circle, Veteran Warriors and Veterans for Common Sense, this letter pointed out several areas where the VA has seemingly fumbled its pandemic response. In particular, miscommunication between regional offices, if advice was offered at all, contributed to confused vets who couldn’t get the help they needed.

One incident described in the letter involved a veteran who came to the Portland VA experiencing severe shortness of breath. The vet was accompanied by a service dog, and was subsequently denied service. Eventually, someone not associated with the VA helped the vet get help at a private facility through the VA’s Mission Act urgent care program.

Source: flickr/Special IG for Afghanistan Reconstruction
With compromised respiratory systems, many veterans are now at greater risk of dying from COVID-19.

Klobuchar and Rounds, in their letter, demand that the VA take action to meet the needs of those who may be left behind.

“We request that you provide information at your earliest convenience on how the VA is expanding telehealth capabilities across RCS facilities to provide veterans, including those with respiratory issues brought on by burn pit exposure, with greater access to care as well as what the VA is doing to provide all necessary medical and sanitation supplies to Vet Centers and other RCS access points to promote the safety of staff and the veterans they serve. Additionally, we request that you communicate with veterans the resources that are available to them during the pandemic.”

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.
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