BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) A potentially deadly threat to veterans after war is beginning to get attention from health advocacy groups and policymakers -- open-air burn pits.
It's illegal to burn trash here due to health concerns, but in war zones, everything was burned. Now, years later, WCAX News has uncovered another battle for the vets who made it home.
Vermont Deputy Adjutant General Michael Heston was honored at a recent Vermont Army National Guard change of command and retirement ceremony.
"Brig. Gen. Michael Heston's leadership and service to the state and nation were extraordinary," said Vt Air National Guard Col. Greg Knight.
Heston, who dedicated 32 years to the Vermont National Guard, shared his thoughts on retirement to a crowd of well-wishers. "I could not have been more fortunate to have this as a final command," he said.
The Vermonter spent much of his life in service, not only through the military but also as a Vermont state trooper for 26 years. He deployed three times to Afghanistan and brought home two bronze stars. He says he brought something else home too. A form of cancer doctors didn't recognize at first. "It was an odd form of pancreatic cancer he'd never seen before," Heston said. But he believes open-air burn pits in Afghanistan caused it.
Reporter Darren Perron: Are you convinced the burn pits led to your cancer?
Brig. Gen. Michael Heston: Yes.
He worked 300 yards away from one on his last deployment. "I was exposed to it," Heston said. "Those burn pits were going 24-7. They just never stopped.
Reporter Darren Perron: And what was in them?
Brig. Gen. Michael Heston: Everything. The best way to explain it is everything... The smoke from the burn pits was so heavy it would hang over the base.
And service members breathed that in. Now thousands, including some Vermonters, say it made them sick, causing cancers or strange undiagnosed illnesses and growths. Some have died.
"It's really much like Agent Orange," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont. Welch is pushing to get more vets on the burn pit registry created by Veterans Affairs. The department is documenting people who worked near the burn pits and people who are sick. More than 154,000 have signed up so far. And Welch is co-sponsoring legislation to make burn pit exposure a disability.
Reporter Darren Perron: Do we have any actual proof though that these burn pits are resulting in military members getting sick"
Rep. Peter Welch: It's anecdotal evidence now but what you're seeing is a higher incidence of cancers and unusual cancers among military members who were exposed to the burn pits. Our obligation as a society to those service members is to make certain that we include in the cost of the war the cost of caring for the warrior.
The Veterans Administration says it reviews burn pit claims on a case-by-case basis. Right now, the department says research doesn't show evidence of long-term health problems and that more studies are needed. A statement to Channel 3 News reads in part:
The "VA encourages all veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence available."
"They started a burn pit registry, so we know we have a problem," Heston said.
Heston is undergoing aggressive cancer treatment. He says these illnesses take a greater toll on family, like his wife, June, who waited and worried at home during deployments and has to now as well. "I never asked for this. And it was five years I was away from home. I come back. She's still there. And she's the one picking up the pieces for me. So we have got to take care of the family. This is not just affecting the soldier. This affects the whole family. I need the Army to be there for us," Heston said
When asked about whether burn pits are still used in war zones, U.S. Department of Defense officials tell Channel 3 one is currently in use in Syria. They are used in temporary situations too, and when there's no other option. "Open-air burn pits are a short-term solution during contingency operations where no other alternative is feasible. For the longer term, incinerators, engineered landfills, or other accepted solid waste management practices are to be used whenever feasible," said a DOD spokesperson.
They acknowledged that burn pits may pose health risks, and like the VA they say they are working to develop screenings and evaluations for service members who may have been exposed, and are still assessing the long-term impacts.