Eustis Woman Is a Crusader against Burn Pits
posted by eric on 7th, 2009
Story By: Michael Harris
Photo By: Anthony Rao
Jill Wilkins talks freely about her loss with anyone within earshot – and that may be over a cup of coffee in her dining room, sitting in her study and conversing with people over the Internet or in front of Congress if that is what is to be.
The Eustis resident calls the last year and a half an “adventure,” a ride that started in a tiny Veteran’s Administration office in Tavares where she felt absolutely sick after leaving that office just several months after her husband, USAF Major Kevin E. Wilkins, RN died of a brain tumor.
Her cause is one where she helps families of other Iraqi War soldiers make sure they collect their benefits and what is entitled to them as a possible result of exposure to toxic chemicals. The toxic chemicals are caused by burn pits – a waste-disposal system of KBR, the company contracted to provide services to the military bases overseas.
According to a lawsuit by the Washington law firm Burke O’Neil; their clients have seen batteries, unexploded ordnance, gas cans, mattresses, rocket pods, and plastic and medical waste (including body parts). The fumes contain carcinogenic dioxins, heavy metals and particulates, according to an Army–Air Force risk assessment, and they flow freely across bases.
It is believed that Kevin Wilkins died as a result of these toxins.
“When he died from the brain tumor, the Lt. Colonel Johnson who was there (at the hospital) really didn’t talk about anything because it happened (Kevin going into the hospital and his passing) in like five days,” Jill says. “Afterward, while I was signing the paperwork, I was chatting with the two (administrative assistants) from Patrick Air Force Base and they were the ones who said Colonel (Lewis) Neace had questioned them on when Kevin’s headaches started. I remember the doctor in the emergency room at Waterman asked if Kevin was around any toxic chemicals and he said, ‘oh yeah all kinds.’ And then Kevin started talking about the burn pits.”
In the end, Jill has received her benefits and what she was entitled to by the military by shear luck. A little-known statute by the VA states that if a soldier dies within a year of his or her tour, the family is automatically entitled to the benefits. Major Wilkins’ second tour ended on April 3, 2007, yet he died on April 1, 2008.
It is yet to be determined if the burn pits were the cause of Major Wilkins’ death and, like him, there are many other soldiers who suffered from chronic or unusual medical complications that never remotely had them prior to going to Iraq.
“My whole thing now is what else can I do to help other people?” she says. “I only got this far because other people helped me. I mean if all of these people didn’t help me, I would have given up after that first appointment at the VA office.”
Bound and determined
After Colonel Neace questioned how Major Wilkins had passed, Jill applied for her benefits through the VA citing his death as a possible result of the burn pits. The woman behind the desk turned her down without so much as a kind word, claiming she didn’t have enough evidence.
“It was a horrible experience,” Jill says. “She said I didn’t have enough information. I was just sick when I left there.”
Through research and making friends on the Internet, she began making headway through the VA office in St. Pete. Her story is the main subject of talks given by Deborah Crawford from Oregon aka Ms. Sparky. Ms. Sparky is a former KBR employee, who has returned and speaks out vehemently about the contracting company. Ms. Sparky and Jill have become very good friends.
But it was one of her Internet friends, who asked about the dates of Major Wilkins’ tour, which helped Jill the most. It was her friend Mike that pointed out that the Major had passed within a year of his tour ending and mentioned that Jill was entitled to benefits.
“It’s weird because nobody else knew about that and of course I didn’t know,” she says.
It was also about that time that Wolf Blitzer of CNN heard of Jill’s story about the burn pits and asked her to be on the show. That was last December and Jill did tell her story.
Three weeks later, she received her benefits from the VA.
As she states, it could have ended at that point. But it didn’t – what of her friends she had made on the Internet? What about the other families who have come down with complications?
“My purpose now is to help other people,” Jill says. “Because really if some those people didn’t have a Web site and I wouldn’t have found it, then I wouldn’t have been connected to this other lady, Cheryl Harris, whose son was electrocuted in one of the showers over there which KBR did the wiring for. She’s still waiting on her benefits.”
It was earlier this year Jill was contacted by the Washington law firm of Burke O’Neil to help speak on a lawsuit against KBR.
“What scared me is when they said, ‘if you’re willing’ they would fly down that week and talk to me,” Jill recalls. “I wasn’t familiar with law firms and I was having trouble getting some health benefits. I said this is something I can’t do right now. Some of my friends on the email were showing me the lawsuit. But I had one friend who said I shouldn’t feel guilty about coming forward in the lawsuit. Really, he said ‘they need you and need your story because your husband already died and you had been through the VA department and he said they need you on this case.’ He said, ‘by you not joining the case would be weaker for others.’
“I ended up doing it because my case would help all of the other soldiers,” she added. “It seems like there are about 200 soldiers who were in this lawsuit.”
According to the Burke O’Neil Web site, the lawsuit is still going on.
In a Newsweek article from June, linked on the Burke O’Neil Web site, KBR won’t discuss burn pits while it reviews the suits. The article continued by saying a KBR spokeswoman e-mailed that KBR isn’t responsible for the Balad pit (Burke alleges it is) and that “any burn pit operated in Iraq or Afghanistan is done pursuant to Army guidelines.”
The article also mentions that Kevin Robbins, a former KBR employee who ran a pit near Al Kut, says he had no guidelines on what could be burned when he arrived.
A Hobby that’s More Than a Hobby
For Jill, with the loss of her husband always on her mind, the whole scene has been “a learning adventure.”
For the soldiers continuing a battle with the VA and through the lawsuit, it’s a financial burden. One example had Burke O’Neil’s suit carried onto Congress and one soldier couldn’t afford to get to Washington to speak on his behalf.
That’s another area where Jill has come in; she sponsored the soldier’s trip to Washington.
“It wasn’t that expensive. They already had a place to stay, so I flew him and his wife there, and his speech was awesome,” Jill says. “He included Kevin in it. So that was another thing I could do to help.”
She tells the story of the young soldier who was there as a weatherman who stayed in a tower. According to Jill, that soldier, Tony, has a blood disorder and has to take a chemotherapy pill every day.
She wants to keep in this fight for others because Jill came very close herself to being in the same boat as other soldiers and their families.
It’s not been determined if Kevin’s brain tumor was caused by the burn pits, but the fact he died within one year of his last tour made Jill very fortunate. If it had been as much as three days later, she wouldn’t have been.
“You know it’s not that I wouldn’t have got my benefits down the road, but it would have been a longer battle. I would have been with everybody else right now in the same group fighting.
“But I never got something that wasn’t (owed). I’m receiving everything that I can get.”
It was through friends that kept her going. She owes that to them and others, who will be returning home. In the future more and more cases, like Major Wilkins’, will be coming and challenges will occur, but Jill is ready to fight at home for our soldiers.
“I’ve already surpassed what I thought I could do because I put my story out there on CNN,” she says. “But then it started a snowball effect, because now people are questioning the burn pit, who was subjected to it and what’s happening now.
“You think after you get your benefits that you’re done, but then your Internet buddies get on there and they start talking about how you need to do this and speak out. I figured God gave me this ability to be comfortable in front of TV and it’s an adventure for me to do this. If they called me right now and said ‘will you speak in front of Congress?’ Oh yeah – in a heartbeat.”
For more information on Jill and her cause see:
To see Jill on The Situation Room with Wolf Biltzer:
To see burn pit photos go to:
Okay I am cheap and sleazy the bold part is about me this wonderful lady contacted me last year and asked me some questions, and all I did was share some information about how if a military person gets sick or dies within a year of service, that is related to something that happened while on active duty, the spouses and children are entitled to all of the benefits as if the person was 100% service connected at the time of their death, or if they become totally disabled.
It covers stuff like cancer, heart attacks, strokes, respiratory issues etc.
Jill going on CNN and the newspaper articles that was all her and she is my hero, she is still taking it to the military about the burn pits and I salute her for that.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Eustis Woman Is a Crusader against Burn Pits