HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Military tours in the Middle East exposed north Alabama veterans to all manner of health hazards.
Some in the Valley claim that when they returned to the U.S., their health suffered, and it took years for the Veterans Administration to respond.
WAFF 48 News spoke to two local veterans who said they believe their decline in health is due to the burn pits they encountered while serving in Iraq in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The U.S. military utilized burn pits overseas as a way to dispose of garbage or unneeded materials. The Federal VA website states the military burned:
"Chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics, rubber, wood, and discarded food.
Burning waste in open air pits can cause more pollution than controlled burning, such as in an incinerator."
Madison resident Terrance Dailey served in Iraq for two tours between 2003 and 2005 as a mortuary affairs officer attached to the 173rd Battalion.
He said he was exposed to burn pits immediately upon his arrival, when the military was clearing buildings for its personnel.
“We just setting anything on fire....Anything. Not knowing what it is,” he said.
Dailey said they were present at every location, but the smoke didn’t register as a threat while he was operating in a war zone.
“Once we land, it’s go time. You don’t have time to wonder what’s safe and what’s not safe. You get the orders and we just react,” he said.
“It’s only when you get back, that you process what happened.”
He said in the years following his tours, his health declined. Breathing became more of a challenge, and he was ultimately diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, an immune disease which can be fatal.
Dailey said his symptoms stopped him from performing his regular military duties in 2010, and was officially medically retired in 2014.
“Sometimes it’s a challenge to get up in the morning to just put on clothes,” he said.
"I tell people my job is staying alive.”
There is no known cure for the disease, and researchers are still not sure of it’s cause.
The Mayo Clinic states “some people appear to have a genetic predisposition to develop the disease, which may be triggered by bacteria, viruses, dust or chemicals.”
Dailey said it wasn’t until 2017 that the Federal Government and the Veterans Administration provided all the benefits he felt he deserved.
He said he navigated a maze of paperwork and appointments to prove to the VA his condition is related to his time overseas.
“You fought a war, you followed all orders, you did what you’re supposed to do, then you had to come back and fight for what you deserve,” he said.
Dailey’s concerns were echoed by Madison County resident Aaron Potter.
He served three tours in Iraq between 2003 to 2009 with multiple units.
He said exposure to the burn pits could last up to 24 hours at a time.
“You would stir it as it burns. It’s human waste, and then your other trash, your dining facility trash,” he said.
“At times you can feel it in your chest, you can feel it in your eyes, there’s really not a whole lot you can do about it.”
He said gastrointestinal problems began in 2010.
These included cramps, irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea.
The VA website states: “Toxins in burn pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs.”
Potter said he went to the VA, but said he ran into issues explaining burn pits and their impact on his health.
“There’s a lot of civilian doctors who just don’t understand. They don’t understand what the burn pits are, they don’t understand what it entails,” he said.
He said the VA and federal government provided the benefits he felt he deserved in 2013.
He said there were times he wanted to “walk out” due to the VA’s bureaucracy, but he understands the VA’s massive workload.
“You go to any VA hospital and it’s packed full,” he said.
“I also want other want other veterans to be taken care of also. If me getting it faster is hindering somebody else, I don’t want that to happen."
Both men said they want other veterans to not give up when pursuing the VA benefits they deserve, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
On Jan. 15, WAFF 48 News requested an interview with a Federal VA representative in Birmingham to discuss the challenges related to treating burn pit patients and how veterans can best navigate the system.
A PR representative based in Birmingham responded that day, and said he would begin arranging an interview.
On Jan. 16, a different PR representative based in Washington D.C. emailed WAFF the following statement:
"In lieu of an interview, the VA provides the following below and the attached.
From June 2007 through Nov. 30, 2019, burn pit related claims accounted for less than one-tenth of a percent of all VA claims processed—13,650 of 15.44 million claims.
VA is addressing Veterans concerns about the health effects of airborne hazards and burn pit exposure – the recently established Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence is the latest example of that.
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. VA has granted service connection for various ailments associated with burn pits and does so on an individual, case-by-case basis after review of a Veteran’s case. Info on how to file a VA claim is here: https://www.va.gov/disability/how-to-file-claim/
VA looks continually at medical research and follows trends related to medical conditions affecting Veterans.
There are multiple ongoing and extensive Department of Defense and VA studies looking at airborne hazards exposures. The attached list provides brief descriptions of some related projects.
To learn about long-term effects of burn pits, VA is in process of contracting with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to provide another comprehensive review of respiratory health effects of airborne hazards in Southwest Asia. The Academies’ report is expected in late 2020."
The VA opened a burn pit registry in 2014 for veterans to document their exposures to aid research. Both Dailey and Potter said they had filled out the registry, but the VA has not reached out to them about their cases.
192,920 Veterans and service members completed and submitted the registry questionnaire between April 25, 2014 and January 6, 2020.
4,393 were in Alabama.
The VA webite on burn pits states:
"Most of the irritation is temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone. This includes eye irritation and burning, coughing and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, and skin itching and rashes.