Beau Biden succumbed to brain cancer shortly after he returned from JAG duty in Iraq. The President’s personal experience with the effects of burn pit smoke could lead to a sea change.
The Veterans Administration estimates that about 3.5 million veterans were exposed to dangerous levels of burn pit smoke. Yet these bureaucrats usually tell victims that their illnesses are not covered. Over the last several years, a series of seriously ill veterans have testified on Capitol Hill. “I gave my lungs for my country,” one of them said. Yet lawmakers have repeatedly refused to take action.
In 2008 and 2009, Beau Biden served at Joint Base Balad and in Baghdad. In 2013, doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme. He died in 2015 at age 46. “He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go,” Beau’s father said during a 2019 address. “And because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with stage 4 glioblastoma.”
Burn Pits in Southwest Asia
When policymakers from presidents all the way down to glee club leaders make decisions, they often focus on the big picture and the immediate effects. They sometimes miss the details and the collateral effects. Burn pits are a very good example. When U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, planners focused on ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq. Details, like how troops would live their everyday lives thousands of miles from friendly territory, were overlooked.
Waste disposal is one of these details. The garbage man does not come to Fallujah. The Southwest Asia wars were not the DoD’s first rodeo, so there are emergency contingency plans for situations like this. A burn pit is basically a do-it-yourself incinerator. These pits are good temporary solutions for armies on the move. But when the “temporary situation” lasts 10 years and the troops stay in the same place, the math does not work out.
Most of us have seen pictures of the Kuwait oil fields which Hussein set afire in the waning days of the 1991 Gulf War. Burn pit smoke looks like that. These large, open waste disposal pits are filled with all the refuse the base generates, including:
- Medical waste,
- Styrofoam cups,
- Plastic water bottles,
- Rubber tires,
- Unexpended ordnance,
- Plastic eating utensils, and
- Discarded metal parts.
Burning these items is a great way to get rid of them. This process also releases toxic fumes. In small or sporadic doses, these fumes are not a problem. That is why burn pits are such good temporary measures. Extended exposure, however, is a serious problem.
Private military contractors often get the duties that no one else wants, and that includes burn pit maintenance. KBR contractors somehow drew the short straw and performed many of these suits. So, contractor burn pit injuries are usually worse than regular servicemember injuries. And that is pretty bad.
Burn Pit Injuries
Because of the toxic fumes and thick smoke, cancer and breathing problems are the two most common serious illnesses related to burn pit exposure.
Stateside, first responder cancer is a hot topic in workers’ compensation circles. When the Twin Towers collapsed in New York City, they contained tens of thousands of pounds of asbestos. The smoke which blanketed Lower Manhattan was laced with high levels of asbestos and other dangerous substances. Mesothelioma, the cancer most commonly associated with asbestos exposure, has at least a 20-year latency period. So, many 9/11 victims are just now showing signs of serious illness.
The toxic smoke in Afghanistan and Iraq has much the same effect. Some people, such as Beau Biden, get sick almost immediately. Others go about their lives for several decades without knowing that malignant tumors are growing between their hearts and lungs.
As for breathing problems, burn pit smoke shrinks narrow passageways in the lungs. The resulting condition, constrictive bronchiolitis, or popcorn lung, almost never infects young people who are generally healthy (i.e. military veterans and returning contractors). Extremely poor environmental conditions usually cause this disease.
The VA blames breathing problems on dust. But the Department of Labor, which administers the Defense Base Act, acknowledges a connection between burn pit smoke and DRLD (Deployment Related Lung Disease), an umbrella term for a number of breathing problems and lung diseases. So, it is easier for injured contractors to obtain fair compensation for their burn pit injuries.
Much like cancer, DRLD does not hit all at once, at least in most cases. Most people do not see the doctor when they feel occasional chest tightness or take the elevator instead of the stairs. Therefore, by the time these victims seek treatment, their conditions have degenerated, making them more difficult to treat.
Treatments for serious illnesses like cancer could easily cost tens of thousands of dollars a month. If the diagnosis is related to a deployment-related condition in any way, health insurance companies immediately refuse to pay these costs, at least in most cases. That refusal puts victims and their families in a serious situation.
The sooner these victims reach out to an attorney, the sooner Defense Base Act medical bill payment kicks in. This benefit covers all reasonably necessary medical bills, such as:
- Diagnostic tests,
- Transportation expenses,
- Emergency care,
- Follow-up care,
- Prescription drugs,
- Medical devices, and
- Physical or occupational therapy.
There is a difference between physical and occupational therapy. Physical therapists help victims regain lost functions. Occupational therapists teach seriously injured victims a new trade. Victims who lose limbs almost always need extensive occupational therapy.
Technically, DBA benefits are available regardless of fault. Frequently, however, obtaining these benefits is not that easy.
The “reasonably necessary” rule is a good example. Insurance companies are normally willing to pay for minimum coverage, but they are not willing to pay for effective health care. Following a car accident, most insurance companies automatically pay for a certain number of physical therapy appointments. The progress the victim makes, or the lack of progress, is completely irrelevant.
Attorneys advocate for victims in these situations, so the money keeps flowing and they can get back to work ASAP.
For more information about DBA eligibility requirements, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.