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Burn pits: Behind the 'silent killer' ignored by the U.S. government for years

(Dan Brewer.)
(Dan Brewer.)

This rebroadcast originally aired on March 10, 2022.

If you are grieving the loss of a fallen service member, or if you know someone who can use support, the TAPS 24/7 National Military Survivor Helpline is available toll-free with support and resources at 800-959-TAPS (8277).

If you’ve been exposed to toxic burn pits, you can also join the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) here.

U.S. troops were ordered to dispose of military waste by digging big holes in the ground and setting the waste on fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(Dan Brewer)

“Is this even legal what we’re doing? I had a feeling in my gut when I saw what was going on,” Dan Brewer, a retired Army officer, says. “I said, ‘Lord, Lord, if we’re doing this everywhere, this is going to come back to haunt us.’”


(Dan Brewer)

So-called burn pits contained used medical supplies, paint, plastic water bottles, batteries, even entire humvees. The smoke was toxic.

“It’s a silent killer, and it may not kill you on the battlefield tomorrow. Down the road, it’s going to cause some long-term health effects,” Brewer says. “And we’re seeing that now, we’re seeing that a lot.”

But the U.S. government has been ignoring these veteran’s medical issues for years.

Today, On Point: Why were these vets ignored, for so long?


Megan Stack, writer for the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times opinion page. Author of the article U.S. Soldiers Came Home Sick. The Government Denied It Was Responsible and the book Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War. (@Megankstack)

Le Roy Torres, retired Army captain. He served for 23 years, and was deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008. A former state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety, he was forced to resign due to lung injuries from burn pit exposure. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear his case later this month. Co-founder of Burn Pits 360, a non-profit that helps vets and their families deal with burn pit exposure. (@trooper1999)

Dan Brewer, retired Army officer. Former burn pit inspector.

Also Featured

Robyn Thomson, widow of former Lieutenant Colonel Todd Thomson, who served in the military for 20.5 years. Her husband died in 2015 of a rare form of colon cancer due to burn pit exposure.

Transcript: A Soldier And His Family’s Story Of Burn Pit Exposure

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Lieutenant Colonel Todd Thomson served in the United States military for more than 20 years. Which means his wife, Robyn, was married both to Todd, the man she loved, and as the saying goes, she was married to the military, the organization Todd served. Todd was just 22 when he enlisted in 1995. He met Robyn two weeks later. And his duties took him, and sometimes Robyn, everywhere. From Pennsylvania and New Mexico to South Korea. And then in 2007, Todd was stationed at Camp Victory, in Baghdad.

ROBYN THOMSON: I do remember him describing how, you know, really filthy the conditions were over there, and how unpleasant it was. And I remember he used to go and write me a note on the dust on the floor of his barracks. And he would say hello today, and take a picture and send it to me. And then he would sweep all the dust out. And then the next day, because there was so much dust back, he would write me another message. So this is kind of like a little game that we would play.

CHAKRABARTI: The dust endlessly drifted in. Both because of the dry conditions, and because Todd’s barracks were right next to the base’s burn pits. Now, burn pits weren’t anything Robyn had given much thought to, or had even heard of, until four years later, 2011, when Todd was at home.

THOMSON: We were at home, we’re both watching TV, watching the news, and there was a story about burn pits coming on.

NEWS BRIEF [Tape]: Giant burning trash piles, they’re sometimes acres in size, that the military used to burn waste in Iraq and Afghanistan. These were the answer to, How do you dispose of trash in a war zone when you can’t just run down to the local landfill?

THOMSON: He goes, Yeah, he says when I was in Baghdad, my barracks were close to the burn pits. And we had to go down one day and drop off some material to be burnt. And it’s about 10 acres of just trash. And he said it was everything that you could possibly ever imagine. Everything.

NEWS BRIEF [Tape]: Food, clothes, used medical supplies, cans of paint, plastic water bottles, batteries, tires, big screen TVs and even entire Humvees too damaged by IEDs to salvage.

THOMSON: And they would set it off with jet fuel.

NEWS BRIEF [Tape]: And breathing in those toxic fumes threatens to kill many more Americans than combat has.

THOMSON: And he said that black smoke was constantly coming out of the burn pits 24/7. And my reaction to it was like, Wow, that doesn’t sound very safe. I wonder what that’s about. And in my mind, I couldn’t imagine at the time, that type of system operating could potentially harm our service members.

CHAKRABARTI: The U.S. military used burn pits for years. They’re sometimes as large as 10 acres. They use them at many bases abroad, but especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clouds of black smoke from the pits would billow for miles, and pilots sometimes reported using the smoke as visual confirmation of a bases location. A survey from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America finds that nearly 90% of post-9/11 veterans were exposed to the smoke from the burn pits. And that smoke was toxic.

Robyn Thomson didn’t think much more about the burn pits after that night in 2011, until the next year. August 2012, when Todd got sick.

THOMSON: And he comes home, he goes, My stomach hurts. And he says, It’s right above my belly button. But if I stretch, you know what? It must be muscular. If I stretch it out, it feels a little bit better.

CHAKRABARTI: Todd was otherwise healthy. He exercised, ate well, never smoked and only drank occasionally.

THOMSON: And we went from that, to him being incredibly sick in the matter of three or four weeks. Where he was in the hospital and the emergency department three times, and he was in excruciating pain. The third time he ended up in the emergency room, he was sent directly to the hospital to be an inpatient. And then within 18 hours he had surgery, because they discovered what that thickening was, was cancer.

CHAKRABARTI: Todd was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 39 at the time.

And he had chemo every single week for almost three years. And they brought in a biological medication to the cancer that he had metastasized incorrectly to. It went through all the lining of his organs, his abdominal organs. So there was no opportunity for him to be able to survive that.

CHAKRABARTI: The diagnosis was terminal, but Robyn and Todd couldn’t understand how he could have developed such an aggressive cancer in the first place. So that took them to a specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

THOMSON: And I remember the oncologist saying like, This is exposure. Like you got exposed to something, typically due to industrial exposure. Most likely, benzene was one of the culprits. And we started thinking about what had you been exposed to, where could he have been? And it just always boiled down to the location of where he was when he was in Baghdad, close to the burn pits.

CHAKRABARTI: In fact, many soldiers have reported severe health problems after exposure to the burn pits on their bases. Respiratory distress, blood disorders, autoimmune diseases all the way to rare forms of cancer, like Todd. And for years, most of these veterans have fought unsuccessfully to receive health care coverage for medical expenses, due to the burn pit exposure. In 2013, Todd and Robyn gathered and filled out all the paperwork they needed and submitted his coverage claim to the Department of Veterans Affairs. They waited almost a year and a half for a response.

THOMSON: It’s ridiculous, it’s a ridiculous amount of time.

CHAKRABARTI: All the while, Todd got sicker and his medical bills kept piling up.

THOMSON: The bills were expensive. Because there are some things that just don’t get covered. And once we got into the world of having to use not only a chemo, but also a biologic, that’s when things got really expensive. And there was no coverage from the VA at all. Though things were tight, things were tough for a long time. And we had a new house, a new baby, a toddler, and it was just, it was a tough time.

CHAKRABARTI: The VA finally responded. In February 2015, Todd’s request for coverage was denied.

THOMSON: And at that time, I’m like, I can’t. I can’t deal with this right now. My husband’s in hospice. I have two little kids, and my husband’s dying. Like, I cannot deal with this at this point.

CHAKRABARTI: Lt. Col. Todd Thomson died one month later, March 13th, 2015. He was 42.

Robyn buried her husband, but she would not let the VA’s denial go unanswered. She appealed the VA’s rejection of Todd’s coverage claim, and the VA said:

THOMSON: It said that they needed more paperwork. So I’m like, OK, that’s fine. I can provide them with more paperwork. So I got literally every single stitch of paperwork from his hospitalizations, his surgeries, his oncologist, the specialists and the nutritionist that helped him with this TPN, his hospice care. And it was mountains of paperwork, and I took it to the VA to have them process it. And still got denied.

CHAKRABARTI: As of March 2021, the VA had denied more than 70% of burn pit claims, according to an analysis by Military.com. Of more than 15,000 disability compensation claims related to burn pit exposure, only 3,500 veterans had at least one issue granted.

THOMSON: If you took my husband’s story and just changed the name, that was the person I’m talking to next to me, it’s just the same exact template of how they were diagnosed. And how it went, and the difficulties and the struggles and lack of support from the VA. And it’s the same exact story. And there are healthy people, they just have no explanation as to why they became this ill. It always boils down to burn pit exposure, that’s been the common denominator.

CHAKRABARTI: But the VA sees it differently. The VA denied 40% of coverage requests, because veterans could not report a diagnosed medical condition. Another 40% were denied because they were unable to connect their condition to their service. Again, according to that Military.com analysis. But all that may be changing.

President Biden mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address last month. And on Tuesday of this week, at the Fort Worth VA clinic in Texas, Biden announced his administration’s determination to expand access to health care for veterans exposed to burn pits.

JOE BIDEN [Tape]: The thing that bothers me the most when veterans aren’t looked out for, because of what we owe them. Is every single, solitary veteran deserves to be treated with dignity. You shouldn’t have to ask for a damn thing. It shouldn’t be, Can you help me? It’s, I’ve got a problem. And we should say, How can we help?

CHAKRABARTI: Which is, of course, the opposite of what the government did for years. And in a biting, if unintentional, moment of irony, President Biden mentioned a similar struggle to gain health care coverage. A struggle by 9/11 first responders in New York who had rushed into smoke and debris at the World Trade Center, following the very terrorist attack that led the U.S. military to invade Afghanistan and later Iraq, where soldiers years later were exposed to those burn pits.

BIDEN [Tape]: You saw what happened and what happened at 9/11 when the buildings went down in New York. You saw the thousands of firefighters who in fact, were because of the toxic smoke they inhaled, finally, finally, because some of the people in the media and in entertainment insisted that they be compensated for.

CHAKRABARTI: The changes come too late for Lieutenant Colonel Todd Thomson. He left behind two daughters when he died. On Sunday, his wife Robyn and the girls will mark the seventh anniversary of Todd’s death.

THOMSON: I want everyone to remember his life. And that he served. But also to respect that his death was due to the fact that he did serve our country, and that people in his type of situation need to be honored and respected and taken care of. Just as much as someone who was killed in action or is 100% disabled. They need to be acknowledged, they need to be treated, they need to be respected, because they also served our country. They just happened to bring the war home with them, and died in a different way.

From The Reading List

New York Times: “The Soldiers Came Home Sick. The Government Denied It Was Responsible.” — “The soldiers with inexplicable breathing complaints started appearing in Dr. Robert F. Miller’s pulmonology clinic in 2004, the year after Baghdad fell to invading United States forces.”

TAPS: “Knowledge. Connection. Hope. The Journey of a surviving spouse and her daughters through illness loss” — “Lt. Col. Todd Thomson proudly served his country for 20 and a half years. The love he had for being a soldier made him get up in the morning; it made his wheels turn.”

The War Horse: “Burn Pits—The Military’s Next Agent Orange” — “At a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on September 25, Robert Miller, a pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests came back normal for a few hundred service members he’d recently evaluated. The soldiers had been struggling to run fast enough to pass their fitness tests, becoming tired with normal activity, and generally having difficulty breathing.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.