Battle Over Burn Pits: New legislation could help vets exposed to toxic fumes

Published: May. 20, 2021 at 6:33 PM EDT|Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 7:29 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - You can’t burn trash legally in the U.S., but it’s happening in war zones, exposing as many as 3.5 million veterans to toxic fumes during the 20-year war on terror, including about 3,000 Vermonters. Many got sick; some died.

Now, there’s a renewed push to put those fires out and get help for vets who have been battling the federal government.

Elba Barr did 13 combat missions during her military career. She was stabbed, shot and wounded in explosions. And Barr held a top-secret position in the Middle East, helping to track al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden right after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“If you ask a service member, when people say thank you we’ll tell them we’re just doing our job. All I did was my job,” Barr said.

That job also included burning waste on military bases where she worked and lived.

“I burned, personally, feces, water bottles, trash. It was part of your duty,” Barr said.

The open-air burn pits also contained medical waste, body parts, vehicles and more. The piles of trash were torched with jet fuel.

About a decade after Barr’s time at a base known as K2 in Uzbekistan-- a jumping-off point for classified missions in Afghanistan-- she started getting sick. She still is.

Reporter Darren Perron: You’re convinced the burn pits caused this.

Elba Barr: Oh, without a shadow of doubt.

The list is long. Most are reproductive health issues: cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer-- twice. She also got throat cancer. And now-- liver failure.

“As of today, two hours ago, they can’t tell me why. They have no idea,” Barr said.

“You hear that all the time. It’s inconclusive. We can’t pinpoint it. It’s just one more thing in the battle of my health I am always dealing with.”

A nonprofit tracking women veterans who passed through K2 reports that 40% suffered miscarriages and 30% suffered ovarian cancer or other reproductive issues.

To get help from the VA, Barr and other sick vets have to first provide a direct service connection between their ailments and burn pit exposure. Most claims are denied.

“This is devastating for families losing their lives and loved ones because of these diseases,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.

New legislation from Gillibrand would make the process easier, requiring a veteran to prove only that they were deployed in an area where burn pits were used.

Darren Perron: Is the VA reluctant to acknowledge burn pit exposure and disability claims because of the cost?

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Yes. It’s always because of the cost... The VA does everything in their power to deny coverage because they don’t want to pay... What the VA should be doing is giving them the health care they earned and that’s what our bill will do.

Gillibrand’s bill has bipartisan support and some star power attached.

“The worst-case scenario... is that we grant health care to a veteran suffering a terrible disease,” said Jon Stewart, a comedian and activist.

The usually funny Stewart is serious about helping vets. He joined the cause seeing commonalities in his battle to create permanent benefits for 9/11 first responders who got sick at ground zero from toxic fumes.

“Don’t make the veterans pay for your budgeting error. If you didn’t put this into the total price, that’s on you, not on the families, not on the veterans, that’s on the government,” Stewart said.

A WCAX News investigation revealed nine burn pits still active in the Middle East. And we’ve learned that in 2015, an inspector general report called it “...indefensible that U.S. military personnel who are already at risk fighting overseas... were put at further risk... from the use of open-air burn pits.”

Our discovery of the pits surprised Gillibrand. She’s now requesting a report from the defense department.

“We’ve been told these burn pits are to be discontinued. They are illegal in the U.S. We were told by the [U.S. Defense Department] they are to use incinerators,” Gillibrand said.

The senator says the government knows they’re dangerous, the fires need to be put out and infrastructure put in place to deal with waste, even in makeshift cities in the middle of war zones.

“This is the cost of war,” Gillibrand said. “So, if you are going to deploy men and women around the globe and put them in situations creating greater risk to their health, then the DOD has to pay for that.”

Right now, there’s no price tag.

“I’m a constant, walking, ticking bomb,” Barr said.

But this 42-year-old mother of two says she’s paid with her life.

“We’re exhausted. We’re so tired. We’re fighting battles. We’re trying to make memories with our children. We’re trying to be present. So our families can tell our story. So I don’t have the energy, I don’t want the energy to fight this,” she said.

Darren Perron: Are you afraid?

Elba Barr: Not for myself. There’s fear. There’s anger. My path is not an easy one. My death will not be an easy one. My fear is what that means for the people around me.

Barr says in order for the senator’s legislation to pass, the country needs to get mad, demanding something be done. Much like we saw when Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War was finally recognized as a cause for illness in vets.

But it could be a tough sell. It will be expensive. And the VA says more evidence is needed to definitively say that burn pits cause health problems. Critics also argue that many people get cancer and it can be difficult to pinpoint a cause.

Gillibrand hopes to get a vote on her bill this year.

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Battle Over Burn Pits, Part 2

Battle Over Burn Pits, Part 1

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