Armed Forces News

The Supreme Court in January 2019 rejected appeals for dozens of plaintiffs against military contractors including Kellogg, Brown and Root - KBR, who claim neurological problems, cancers and other health complications resulting from burn pit exposure. The court cited separation of powers principals in its decision, declining to second guess a military decision to use the pits, and absolving contractors.

Service members and veterans who served near burn pits would be compensated for health problems from which they now suffer as a result of exposure to poisonous fumes, under an initiative launched by Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

The military – and military contractors such as KBR, used the pits extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to dispose of waste and garbage including solvents, batteries, car tires, plastics, styrofoam and medial waste. The pits dispersed pollutants and carcinogens into the air that on many bases were unavoidable. Many service members who were exposed to them complain that they have contracted pulmonary issues, cancer, insomnia, neurological problems and other conditions as a result.

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Since the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, DAV and other veterans’ advocacy organizations have pressed lawmakers to instruct the Department of Veterans Affairs to assign disability ratings to those who were affected, and treat them for their related maladies.

Congress forced the military to stop using burn pits in 2010, and made VA create a registry of victims in 2013. Additionally, lawmakers included a provision in the 2018 defense-spending bill requiring VA to conduct further research into burn-pit illnesses.

DAV is pressing VA to presume service connection for diseases, and to foster scientific research related to burn pit-related exposure.

More needs to be done, DAV believes. “Congress needs to ensure veterans from all eras and conflicts who served in areas where burn pits were present are included in any legislation related to these toxic exposures,” said Joy Ilem, DAV’s national legislative director, in a Jan. 8 statement.

DAV also wants Congress to pass legislation that would “define exactly when and where veterans were exposed” to the burn pits that made them sick, and establish service connection so they can be treated.

With the understanding that it could take years for medical researchers to establish definitive relationships between exposure and illness, DAV is pressing lawmakers to ensure that VA would be in position to act in behalf of sick veterans as soon as such presumptions are proven.

“While a concession of burn pit exposure will not establish presumptive service connection for any diseases and illnesses today, it is an important step that will prepare the VA to take action in the future, if and when medical evidence establishes the necessary links,” Ilem said.