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Veterans Who Say Burn Pit Exposure Made Them Sick Wait For Judge’s Decision On Lawsuit
Hundreds of veterans and their families who have spent eight years in federal court trying to prove that burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan made U.S. troops sick are worried they’ll hit a legal dead end if a Maryland judge decides the company that ran the smoke-belching disposal sites can’t be sued because it was working on behalf of the government.
“It’s been a living hell, emotionally, financially and physically,” said Rosie Torres, whose husband, LeRoy, a former Army Reserve captain, was diagnosed with a debilitating, progressive lung disease after he returned home to Texas following a deployment to Iraq. “It is the war that followed us home.”
For Dina McKenna, the case represents hope for long-delayed justice from a military contractor. The widow, who now lives in Tennessee, initially survived on charitable donations until Veterans Affairs benefits kicked in after her 41-year-old husband, former Army Sgt. William McKenna, died in 2010 from a rare form of T-cell lymphoma. He had served in Iraq.
“What do I want out of this lawsuit? I want the rules changed so soldiers don’t go through this again. I want to see money distributed to families who lost their homes —because their spouse suffered or is suffering,” McKenna said.
Torres and McKenna are among 735 plaintiffs waiting for U.S. District Court Judge Roger W. Titus to decide whether to let a massive lawsuit continue against Houston-based KBR Inc., a defense contractor and former subsidiary of Halliburton that ran burn pits to dispose of waste on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KBR has asked the judge to dismiss the burn pit case — a collection of more than 60 individual suits filed in multiple jurisdictions by military family members, veterans or former KBR employees — arguing that the federal courts lack jurisdiction to rule on a military decision to use the burn pits, and as a military contractor, it should be shielded from litigation. The company released a statement June 29 saying its employees operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan “safely and effectively at the direction and under control of the U.S. military.”
“The government’s best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded there is no link between any long-term health issues and burn pit emissions,” the statement read.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendant wouldn’t comment on the case.
But those suing the company say the smoke from burning millions of pounds of trash in open pits, sometimes around the clock, caused acute and chronic health conditions for those working and living nearby.
KBR burned all kinds of refuse at the sites — some as large as 10 acres —including canvas, wood, paint, batteries, computers, fuel, plastic water bottles, animal carcasses and even human medical waste.
The plaintiffs say they suffer from a range of diseases caused by exposure to the burning: respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological problems and cancers. In one Washington, D.C., class action, a dozen of the plaintiffs have died since the cases were consolidated in October 2009.
Titus, who held a hearing in March, has not said when he will announce his decision on whether the court has jurisdiction. But he tossed the case once before, in 2013, when he agreed with KBR that military contractors should share the same immunity from litigation over war injuries that the U.S. government has.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Titus’s decision in 2014, saying more evidence was needed to determine whether KBR had met its contract conditions. KBR unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case in 2015, sending it back to Titus.
Eight years in, the plaintiffs remain determined to see the case to its end.
Jill Wilkins’ husband, Air Force Maj. Kevin Wilkins, died in 2008 at age 51 of glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. Wilkins receives lifelong benefits because her husband was on active duty when he died, but other plaintiffs are without compensation or health care, she said.
“It would be extremely sad if the case is dismissed,” Wilkins said. “There are a lot of people looking for help from the (Department of Veterans Affairs) and not getting it.”
The debate over the potential health effects of the burn pits goes back almost to the start of their use on U.S. bases.
KBR began managing waste operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. The company took over trash burning from the U.S. military, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former coalition ground forces commander, who testified as a witness for KBR during the March hearing.
KBR ran the operations under a contract with the Defense Contract Management Agency. In court papers, the company said the Defense Department authorized continued use of the pits.
But James Leidle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, noted in court that by 2004, the department had purchased 41 incinerators for U.S. bases in Iraq, though a contract dispute delayed their construction.
As early as 2006, Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis warned senior Air Force officials that the burn pit at Joint Base Balad, 40 miles north of Baghdad, presented an acute health hazard and “the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke.”
But a 2008 U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine report contradicted that, saying that an air sampling from Balad showed exposure levels were not “routinely above” guidelines and weren’t likely to cause short-term health effects. Results also indicated an “acceptable” health risk for both cancer and non-cancerous diseases long-term.
By 2010, 39 incinerators had been installed in Iraq but burn pits remained in use at small outposts and in Afghanistan. In a review conducted for the VA in 2011, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found inadequate or insufficient evidence to link burn pit exposure to cancer, respiratory disease or neurological diseases.
At the insistence of Congress, the VA created the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry in 2014 to keep track of veterans’ claims of exposure. Nearly 105,000 veterans have joined.
But Bill McKenna’s not on the list. Neither is his widow. Dina McKenna said she’s not allowed to register as a family member of a deceased veteran.
©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
GENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said he was prepared to take military action to stop Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb but left open whether he would back the use of force to protect Gulf oil supplies that Washington fears may be under threat by Iran.
Worries about a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since attacks last week on two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane at the entrance to the Gulf. Washington blamed long-time foe Iran for the incidents.
Tehran denies responsibility but the attacks, and similar ones in May, have further soured relations that have plummeted since Trump pulled the United States out of a landmark international nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018.
Trump has restored and extended U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. That has forced countries around the world to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.
But in an interview with Time magazine, Trump, striking a different tone from some Republican lawmakers who have urged a military approach to Iran, said last week's tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman had only a "very minor" impact so far.
Asked if he would consider military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, Trump said: "I would certainly go over nuclear weapons and I would keep the other a question mark."
Minnesota Democratic Party staffer under fire for calling USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul a 'murder boat'
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday he is appalled by a state DFL Party staff member's tweet referring to the recently-launched USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul as a "murder boat."
"Certainly, the disrespect shown is beyond the pale," said Walz, who served in the Army National Guard.
William Davis, who has been the DFL Party's research director and deputy communications director, made the controversial comment in response to a tweet about the launch of a new Navy combat ship in Wisconsin: "But actually, I think it's gross they're using the name of our fine cities for a murder boat," Davis wrote on Twitter over the weekend.
'We are there to deter aggression' — Pompeo addressed CENTCOM on Iran mere moments before Shanahan announced his departure
TAMPA — Minutes before the Acting Secretary of Defense withdrew Tuesday from his confirmation process, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at MacDill Air Force Base about the need to coordinate "diplomatic and defense efforts'' to address rising tensions with Iran.
Pompeo, who arrived in Tampa on Monday, met with Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. and Army Gen. Richard Clarke, commanders of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command respectively, to align the Government's efforts in the Middle East, according to Central Command.
NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — The trial of Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher officially kicked off on Tuesday with the completion of jury selection, opening statements, and witness testimony indicating that drinking alcohol on the front lines of Mosul, Iraq in 2017 seemed to be a common occurrence for members of SEAL Team 7 Alpha Platoon.
Government prosecutors characterized Gallagher as a knife-wielding murderer who not only killed a wounded ISIS fighter but shot indiscriminately at innocent civilians, while the defense argued that those allegations were falsehoods spread by Gallagher's angry subordinates, with attorney Tim Parlatore telling the jury that "this trial is not about murder. It's about mutiny."
President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will "not to go forward with his confirmation process."
Trump said that Army Secretary Mark Esper will now serve as acting defense secretary.