When It Comes to Burn Pits, Veterans Might Be On Their Own

Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit.
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

By now you’ve probably heard of former Marine and Army Sergeant Joseph Hickman’s new incendiary book, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.” It’s a provocative look behind the massive burn pits of Iraq and Afghanistan, detailing a chilling history of sickness and systemic neglect from higher ups.

If you’ve never heard of burn pits before, the name reveals everything. Instead of using more expensive incinerators to dispose of waste, everything from “tires, lithium batteries, asbestos insulation, pesticide containers, Styrofoam, metals, paints, plastic, medical waste and even human corpses,” according to Hickman, were thrown into holes in the ground and set on fire. More than 250 burn pits were in operation during the past decade, spewing toxic fumes into the lungs of service members and civilians alike. The Department of Defense has said that each pit on larger bases burned on average 30 to 40 tons of solid waste per day. Hickman asserts that the health effects were so dangerous that they were even passed down through the generations, writing in his book, “The rate of having a child with birth defects is three times higher for service members who served in those countries.” 

Related: Despite health concerns, the military still uses burn pits »

Hickman’s account is probably the most thorough and expansive take on burn pits so far, going so far as to implicate KBR, who ran the burn pits, and Gen. David Petraeus, who initially denied that burn pits were harmful. But it isn’t the first attention that’s been paid to the phenomenon. Journalists have been writing about the burn pits for years. There have been multiple television specials about the burn pits. Hickman even makes the allegation that Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, might have died because of cancer caused by exposure to burn pits.

Surprisingly, none of this has translated into organized political action on behalf of veterans. If anything, things have actually gotten worse in the past year. Despite a VA survey conducted in 2014 released report in 2015 which found that veterans exposed to burn pits have higher new diagnoses of respiratory illnesses and high blood pressure than veterans not exposed, the Department of Veterans Affairs still denies any connection between burn pits and health issues. In fact, its website says, “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits. VA continues to study the health of deployed Veterans.”

Granted, it can sometimes be difficult to prove causal relationships when researching environmental health effects. Difficult, but not impossible. But it does become impossible to prove a relationship when those studies cease altogether. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened when Congress dropped burn pit research from its list of the Pentagon’s peer-reviewed research programs for 2016. No one else was researching this. Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense, said, “There’s nothing comparable. There’s very little research inside the [Department of Veterans Affairs].” Without the proper research explicitly linking the burn pits to symptoms, veterans are going to have a hell of a time receiving compensation, much less an official mea culpa from the DoD.

We’ve been through this before. It took nearly a decade of legal wrangling in order for veterans exposed to Agent Orange — the defoliant sprayed during the Vietnam War and which was found to cause “cancer, birth defects, and a nightmarish brew of other health problems” — to receive compensation. Even then, that was part of a settlement outside of court with the corporations who produced the chemical. Despite a series of class-action lawsuits, there’s been no legal admission of wrongdoing on anyone’s part. The companies that manufactured the chemical (mostly Dow and Monsanto) continue to maintain their innocence. Jill Montgomery, a Monsanto spokesperson, said on behalf of the company in 2004, “We are sympathetic with people who believe they have been injured and understand their concern to find the cause, but reliable scientific evidence indicates that Agent Orange is not the cause of serious long-term health effects.” The out-of-court settlement was pathetic: A maximum of $12,000 spread out over the course of 10 years (acceptance of which would render most veterans ineligible for other state benefits) and widows of veterans who died of Agent Orange exposure only receiving $3,700.

So what’s the answer for today’s vets? Politicians love to pay lip service to supporting the troops, at least until it comes time to cut checks or investigate corporations. How do we convince them to act, to pass legislation banning burn pits (they’re still used in Afghanistan) and compensating veterans? There’s the legal route, of course, and there is currently class-action lawsuit filed against KBR, but as we saw with Agent Orange, the compensation could be negligible and it might be settled out of court, which would mean no admission of wrongdoing on anyone’s part (and still no peer-reviewed research).

What veterans should remember is that we’re our own best advocates. If we work together to collectively continue pressing an issue, it stands a much better chance of seeing the light of legislative day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there already is at least one group out there, Burnpits 360°, founded by a veteran, who is working toward establishing “an alliance of veteran service organizations, health care providers, legislators, and government organizations to allow for the strategic development of a quality specialized health care model specific to toxic environmental exposures that will provide a lifetime of care.”

Those goals might sound lofty, but they shouldn’t. As veterans, it’s incumbent upon us to come together to, organize, write, advocate, and keep pressing on behalf of our battle buddies for what is really a modicum of respect. We shouldn’t count on anyone else to do it for us, because, just like downrange, we’re all we got.

(DoD photo)

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

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Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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