Legislation would create burn pit registry
By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 01/21/2010 02:59:07 PM MST
Military members concerned that exposure to toxic open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan may have caused long-term health problems can face a significant obstacle if they try to prove their ailments are connected to their service.
The U.S. military has not compiled a complete history of its burn pit use; nor does it have a way to account for where many of the 2 million members were exposed to pits while serving at war between 2001 and 2009.
New legislation introduced this week by Rep. Tim Bishop would change that. The New York Democrat is asking Congress to sponsor an official registry documenting the tens of thousands of troops exposed to the pits, where the military has discarded of much of its combat trash including chemicals, plastics, vehicle parts and medical waste.
"I will continue to fight to bring an end to these reckless policies which endanger our troops and to ensure that our veterans receive the medical care they need," Bishop said.
His bill would also fund the construction of a complete history of the scores of burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan and order annual reports to Congress on burn pit-related sicknesses.
Among those who believe they have been sickened by exposure to the pits is Utah National Guard soldier Casey Malmborg, who has had trouble breathing since returning from him 2007 deployment to Iraq.
"I went on the deployment as a healthy 19-year-old," Malmborg said last month. "Now I'm stuck
with asthma for the rest of my life."
At www.burnpits.org, an informal gathering place established by Bishop's office last year, veterans have shared stories of cancer, blood disease, skin problems and leukemia -- all of which they believe to be connected to exposure to the pits.
But former Hill Air Force Base environmental health officer Darrin Curtis -- who warned of chronic health problems related to the pits during his 2006 tour of duty in Iraq -- says that it could be decades before epidemiological studies tie symptoms and diseases to a cause.
But lead cosponsor Rep. Carol Shea-Porter believes Congress can act now. "The toxins emitted from burn pits can cause serious and chronic health problems," the New Hampshire Democrat said. "Our troops shouldn't have to worry about becoming ill from toxic air produced on their own bases."
For several years, military health officials denied that exposure to the pits was causing long-term damage to U.S. troops. That changed last month when the military's senior official for health protection acknowledged to The Salt Lake Tribune that it was "likely" that exposure contributed to chronic illnesses for some service members.
The military has replaced dozens of pits with cleaner-burning incinerators, but dozens of others remain in use throughout the warfronts.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Legislation would create burn pit registry
Thousands of vets could get benefits upgrade
By KIMBERLY HEFLING,
Associated Press Writer
Mon Jan 25, 7:11 am ET
WASHINGTON – The military has agreed to expedite a review the records of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder to determine whether they were improperly denied benefits.
The agreement stems from a judge's order in a class action lawsuit originally filed by seven combat veterans who alleged the military illegally denied benefits to those discharged because of the disorder during a six-year period that ended Oct. 14, 2008.
Legal notices are currently being mailed to about 4,300 veterans informing them that they can "opt-in" to the lawsuit until July 24 to participate in the expedited review. Attorneys for the veterans estimate that millions could be paid to veterans under the agreement, with some veterans receiving hundreds or more dollars in increased monthly benefits.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program was to discuss the suit at a press conference Monday.
Former Army Sgt. Juan Perez, 36, of Owosso, Mich., said the resolution of the suit filed in 2008 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims was a relief. Perez, a father of five who did two tours in Iraq, said he struggles with migraine headaches and an eye injury related to a head injury sustained in Baghdad. He also has nightmares and takes medication for his mood related to PTSD.
Since he left the military, he said he and his wife were laid off from their jobs and declared bankruptcy, in part because of medical bills from the birth of his two youngest kids.
"I'm glad that they are finally moving forward and reevaluating the soldiers that need to be reevaluated and doing the right thing," Perez said. "It's been kind of a struggle not only for myself but a lot of individuals that didn't get what they were supposed to get in the first place."
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a terrifying event where the person was physically harmed or felt threatened. Symptoms range from flashbacks to problem drinking.
The lawsuit addresses the issue of the disability rating given by the military to veterans discharged with PTSD. Each of the seven plaintiffs was given a rating of 10 percent or less.
The law requires the military to assign a disability rating of at least 50 percent to those discharged for PTSD, said Bart Stichman, co-executive director the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit organization that represents the veterans. Since October 2008, the military has given the 50 percent rating to those discharged with PTSD, Stichman said.
The higher rating ensures that the veteran receives lifelong monthly disability payments, free health care for the veteran and the veteran's spouse, as well as health care for the veteran's minor children.
If a veteran qualifies for a higher disability rating, they may receive back pay as well as reimbursement for health care expenses.
To help the affected veterans, the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP law firm have coordinated about 100 volunteer lawyers to offer free counseling.
On the Net:
Information on lawsuit: http://www.ptsdlawsuit.com/
National Veterans Legal Services Program: http://www.nvlsp.org/
PTSD Information Center: http://ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/information/