Burn Pits: Agent Orange of War on Terrorism?

NGAUS Washington Report
May 22, 2018

Even with legislation introduced in the House drawing attention to the issue of burn pits, veterans still think Congress is unaware of the problem and fear it could become the Agent Orange of the war on terrorism.

“We’ve had an overflow of veterans sharing their stories, especially in the last few months,” Paul Rieckhoff, the leader of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told Military Times. “Our members feel like their bodies are under attack. And they’re calling for help.”

His group was one of several veteran advocacy organizations that joined with lawmakers last week for a press conference on Capitol Hill. Included were Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., who sponsored the Burn Pits Accountability Act, H.R. 5671. It would help identify service members exposed to the poisonous fumes from burn pits and require greater monitoring of their health. The fumes are thought to be the cause of various cancers, respiratory illnesses and other health problems.

“The level of awareness among members of Congress on the problems from burn pits is abysmally low,” said Gabbard, a member of the Hawaii National Guard who served in Iraq. “Too few understand the urgency of the issue.”

The problem is being compared to that of Agent Orange, a defoliant that was sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam to eliminate concealment for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. It also fell on American troops, who have reported a litany of health problems linked to the chemical dusting they endured. The claim at the time was that it posed no health risks, which is now known not to be true. It has been linked to several cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments suffered by Vietnam veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry has attracted more than 141,000 names. But advocates think that number does not come close to the real number. Fumes from the pits, where everything from human waste to water bottles to batteries was burned in an open hole, drifted across the bases and were inhaled by every military member and civilian who lived and worked there.

Mast, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, said the extent of exposure is not appreciated even by officials in the military and the VA.

“They often ask if you were assigned to a job where you [worked at the pits],” he said. “And if you weren’t, how could this possible affect you. They don’t understand that’s not how the military works.”