PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A US Congressman from Pennsylvania is promising action following a KDKA investigation into a new health crisis facing America’s military.
Some are calling exposure to “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan this generation’s Agent Orange.
“I get sick all the time,” veteran Shawn Schrag said. “I’m coughing and wheezing right now.”
As a paratrooper in Iraq, Schrag would often tend to burn pits — where platoons would pile all kinds of garbage, plastics and human waste — douse it all with diesel fuel and set it afire.
Years later, he and tens of thousands of other war on terror vets wonder if their exposure to the pits and the thick, dark toxic smoke is the cause of their health problems, such as respiratory ailments and severe headaches.
“To give you an example, when I came back from Iraq, about three weeks later, I had the most intense pain ever,” veteran Justin Moore said. “I had these migraines that would just put me on the floor.”
The vets compare the burn pits to Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam that caused cancer in returning soldiers — though the government was slow to acknowledge a connection.
“I’ve met with Vietnam veterans that had pretty much every organ replaced because of the Agent Orange they experienced,” Schrag said, “and just like them, you know, they didn’t have a clue what was in that stuff being sprayed upon them. I didn’t have any clue what I was burning.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says there is no established link between the pits and any specific disease or health effect. But Congressman Ryan Costello of eastern Pennsylvania says they need to look deeper.
“The VA has to be more proactive here. And what needs to happen by being more proactive is we need to establish a center of excellence,” Costello said. “We need to be able to draw a correlation between an adverse health impact and whether or not it was a consequence of exposure to a burn pit.”
Costello — a Republican — is sponsoring a bi-partisan a bill to establish that center, speed up the research, and reach out to any vet who suspects ill-effects from the burn pits.
“Without that happening, it’s only going to get worse and veterans who were exposed to burn pits who are suffering will not get the care that they’re entitled to,” Costello said, “and so until that happens we’re not headed in the right direction on this issue.”
For its part, the VA says much of that is already under works — including establishing a registry where more than 100,000 vets have signed on — saying they believe burn pits have impacted their health.
The VA says they’ve invited all of those vets in for evaluations and are conducting numerous research studies.
But while the VA says no vet will go untreated, getting a full compensation for burn pit exposure is an uphill battle, as was the case with Bethany Ariel Bugay, who died of leukemia after returning from Iraq.
Her husband John says the VA did not believe burn pits were the cause.
Bugay: “The military said there’s no direct correlation between that process and her illness.”
KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “But you don’t believe that.”
Bugay: “I don’t.”
And the vets want the VA to be more engaging.
“We need to be proactive not retroactive. We don’t need to have veterans with their organs shutting down before we say, ‘Hey, we need to look into this.’”