Will a new generation of Vt. soldiers face the Battle over Burn Pits?
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A Channel 3 News investigation in 2018 on burn pits revealed the unexpected health battles many soldiers face after returning from deployments. Now, as a thousand Vermont National Guard soldiers are called to duty again, Darren Perron has an update on the ongoing problem.
“Just having him at family functions and celebrating our kids’ accomplishments I miss the most,” said June Heston, who wishes her husband, Michael, got to see their son get his MBA degree and their daughter become partner in her chiropractic practice. But he didn’t. Heston died of a rare pancreatic cancer just months before those milestones. “He was a good guy. He put his family first.”
Heston dedicated more than 30 years to the Vermont National Guard, rising through the ranks to become brigadier general -- and Vermont’s deputy adjutant general. He deployed three times to Afghanistan and escaped enemy fire, but he told us back in 2018, just two months before he died, that the burn pits made him sick.
Reporter Darren Perron: Are you convinced the burn pits led to your cancer?
Brig. Gen. Michael Heston: Yes.
The massive, open-air trash fires burned all day and all night. Soldiers breathed in smoke that hung over the bases. Everything was torched including trash, medical waste, human waste, metals, and tires.
“Veterans who have been exposed to burn pits are having a much higher incidence of cancer and other diseases,” said Rep Peter Welch, D-Vermont, who has repeatedly raised the issue in Congress. But the U.S. Defense Department and Veterans Affairs continue to deny claims by many soldiers who lived and worked near the burn pits and are now sick.
“It’s a very slow process. Not much has changed,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Dixon, who’s had an unidentifiable growth on his ribs since his deployment to Iraq. “It’s just kind of an all-the-time-pain in the left side of my chest that is always there.”
And he’s worried about the nearly 950 Vermont soldiers and 80 airmen deploying overseas now. It’s a long-anticipated, large-scale call up to the Middle East. WCAX News just uncovered there are nine war zone burn pits still in operation in that region. But the DOD’s U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of the military operations there, won’t say exactly where, citing security reasons.
Reporter Darren Perron: Will our men and women deploying now be near these pits again?
Rep. Peter Welch: You know Darren, we don’t know. That’s the real concern. That’s why I support banning these burn pits.
Congressman Welch wants the military to find alternatives to deal with waste and supports legislation that requires the defense department to reveal burn pit locations and link exposure to them as a cause of these illnesses. Military members would then qualify for disability benefits. Right now, Welch says 80% of the 13,000 burn pit claims so far have been denied by the VA. “We think it’s a pretty logical conclusion. The VA says, ‘Prove it,’ and we give them more evidence. They say, ‘Not enough, prove it.’ So, this is a push with the VA,” he said.
Reporter Darren Perron: This could be tens of thousands of people affected, so we are talking a lot of money. Could this bankrupt the military? Is that the holdup with the VA you think?
Rep. Peter Welch: I don’t think that’s the case, but the cost of the war has to be the cost of caring for the warrior.
The VA says many burn pit disability claims are denied because there’s no definitive link between the health conditions listed and burn pit exposure. Both the VA and the DOD tell WCAX they are concerned about toxins from burn pits but more studies are needed to determine long-term impacts. They advise veterans who may have been exposed to add their names to the burn pit registry. The DOD says it allows the department to track those service members and provide them with the latest information. We’ve learned nearly 233,000 veterans signed up so far, including about 700 Vermonters.
“Mike looked at me and said, we got into something over there,” Pat Cram remembers her husband saying as soon as he got diagnosed with prostate cancer. Sgt. Major Mike Cram served in the 21-person Vermont Military Police Unit in Afghanistan in 2010. Of those 21 Vermonters, three died of cancer. Several others caught their cancers early enough, and even more members of the unit have unknown illnesses and growths doctors haven’t seen before.
“He knew right away there was a connection between the burn pits and the cancers,” Cram told WCAX. A year and a half after his diagnosis, Mike died. He was 47. “He has left a huge hole in our lives,” Cram said.
Since then, both Pat Cram and June Heston made it their mission to end the war zone burn pits that they say killed their husbands. “Mike asked specifically that we continue this fight on his behalf because he couldn’t,” Pat said.
They helped get a state law passed to increase awareness about the burn pit registry. It also requires medical providers to ask veterans about possible burn-pit exposure, where they deployed, and when, so that info is in their medical records. But sources tell us those efforts slowed due to the pandemic.
“He loved the National Guard. He preached family first to all of his troops,” Heston said. She says it’s now their duty to protect the military family their husbands left behind. “It is something that Mike would be fighting if he were here to do that. So, I feel like I’m doing that for him so that other families don’t have to go through what we have gone through... I think he would be proud.”
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