Becca Balint: The sickening legacy of the burn pits

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Sometimes a witness testimony to the legislature is so compelling that time seems to stop. This was the case when the Senate Government Operations Committee — chaired by Jeanette White — took testimony last week on the military's open-air burn pits used on military bases and outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

June Heston, the widow of Vermont Brig. Gen. Mike Heston, told the committee about her husband's untimely death from pancreatic cancer and her belief that his illness was caused by prolonged exposure to the open-air burning of military waste on his three deployments. The committee also heard heartbreaking testimony from Vermont Army National Guard Sgt. Wesley Black who said, "You're essentially looking at a dead man walking." Black has been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer; it took doctors years to understand his symptoms. Like Heston, he thinks his illness is tied to the large burn pits that generated prolonged plumes of toxic fumes near his base.

Private contractors hired by the U.S. military operated burn pits at bases and outposts — primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in Djibouti and Southwest Asia — to manage the huge amount of waste generated by military operations. Some burn pits were as big as municipal dumps and burned 24 hours a day, every day.

Tens of thousands of soldiers were exposed to these burn pits, which were filled with all sorts of refuse — plastics, batteries, rubber, munitions, electronics, appliances, military equipment and vehicles, dead animals, human waste and food waste — and then doused with jet fuel and ignited. How could anyone imagine that this was a good idea?

The thick clouds of smoke — and the resulting ash that rained down on our soldiers — were a lethal mixture of pollutants including neurotoxins, benzene, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, as well as particles of copper, iron, and titanium. Immediate short-term health effects were obvious: soldiers reported respiratory distress and horrible thick black phlegm in their noses, chests and throats. The long-term effects of exposure to the chemical-laden plumes are just now being examined.

The Veterans Administration established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry in 2014 to gather information about veterans and active service members about their exposure to the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. To date, approximately 155,000 American soldiers and veterans have registered, but only several hundred Vermonters — out of thousands who'd been exposed — have registered.

Senate bill 111, sponsored by the entire Senate Government Operations Committee, directs the Vermont Department of Health, the Vermont National Guard's Adjutant and Inspector General, and the Executive Director of the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs to do more thorough outreach and education so that all our soldiers and veterans will be made aware of the registry.

Some politicians and servicemen and women refer to the burn pits as this generation's "Agent Orange" — the highly toxic defoliant used in Vietnam by the United States that sickened thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese civilians. With the burn pits, the military has once again been slow to take the concerns seriously.

Inevitably, some in the military will defend the practice as an unfortunate but inevitable one given the fog of war and the Herculean logistical task of housing and managing thousands of service members in makeshift bases. But this explanation does not account for the fact that military contractors continued to use the burn pits long after high-intensity incinerators were delivered to bases.

We are at the beginning of what is sure to be a long, painful saga for our military families. State legislators will continue to do all we can to assist them, given that it is primarily a federal issue. But it all feels terribly, agonizingly inadequate.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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