For years, tens of thousands of veterans suffering from their exposure to the burning of toxins in military trash pits across Afghanistan and Iraq sought official acknowledgement of a connection between the smoke and their health issues.
Their long march for recognition is gaining some traction.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Tarpon Springs Republican, is developing legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to assume that certain diseases arise from burn pit exposure when it makes decisions on compensating veterans. The legislation mirrors connections formally established to the defoliant Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.
A spokeswoman for Bilirakis, vice chairman of the influential House Veterans Affairs Committee, said efforts to pass the legislation could be bolstered by a recent ruling from a federal administrative court judge.
In January, Judge Christopher Larsen ruled in a worker's compensation claim that a Colorado military contractor's lung problems were the result of deployment-related lung disease after exposure to toxins from burn pits when she was working in Mosul, Iraq, in 2004.
"We are hopeful that the recent court ruling will help strengthen the Congressman's position that this is an issue that warrants immediate attention," said Bilirakis spokeswoman Summer Robertson. "Veterans cannot afford to wait."
Tampa-area veterans D.J. Reyes and Lauren Price are among the many veterans suffering health problems they believe are connected to their exposure to plastics, human waste, ammunition, animal carcasses and other trash burned in the pits.
They welcome the legislation that's in the works and the recent court ruling.
“A long time ago when I spoke with my dad about this topic and my noticeable health issues, he said to me that what I experienced in Iraq and later Afghanistan is the current version of what he and others faced in Vietnam and the Agent Orange problem,” said Reyes, 60, a retired Army colonel living in Tampa.
Price, 52, of New Port Richey, has long pushed for legislation linking burn pits and disease. On Feb. 23, Price, founder of the Veteran Warriors non-profit organization, met with Bilirakis to present the group's "2018 Burn Pits Reformation and Veteran Care Act" and ask for his support.
"This bill has been years in the making and is designed to bring real solutions to those service-members and veterans who suffer from ailments after being exposed to open-air burn pits in combat zones," said Price, who retired from the Navy as a petty officer first class because of other medical reasons after the Navy denied her claim about respiratory issues.
Veteran Warriors, Price said, "greatly appreciates Congressman Bilirakis' continued and unwavering support of this very important aspect of veterans care and well-being."
Like tens of thousands of others who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Reyes and Price suffer lung problems.
A lawsuit has been filed against Kellogg Brown Root, the company that ran the burn pits, and the VA has established a registry of those claiming exposure.
Kellogg Brown Root has said the company operated burn pits at limited locations and did so “safely and effectively” at the direction of the U.S. military. Personnel deployed to Southwest Asia were exposed to many hazardous conditions, the company said, including harsh ambient air.
"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," Kellogg Brown Root said in a statement.
At least one study showed a link, however.
Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis wrote in a December 2006 memo that exposure to smoke from burn pits posed acute and potential long-term health hazards. Curtis, who worked in biomedical engineering, had studied the burn pit at Balad Air Base in Iraq and said commanders knew about the problem for years.
Bilirakis' bill would establish a presumption of service connection for those like Reyes and Price who suffered health problems after exposure to toxic burn pits.
"The presumptive status would be for post-9/11 Vets who were deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan and were exposed," said Robertson, the congressman's spokeswoman, adding that the list of specific diseases to be covered "is still something we are working on."
Officials with the VA will "evaluate any proposed bill and provide input directly as appropriate to members of Congress and applicable oversight committees," said department spokesman Curt Cashour.
The VA would have to deal with compensation claims and treatment of diseases.
Reyes, the retired colonel, said he hopes the Bilirakis bill is passed and signed into law and that the presumptive link is established for burn pit exposure as well as exposure to pervasive fumes from oil fires set by the forces of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
"Today, we have witnessed veterans who fell victim to a variety of illnesses that they did not have prior to their deployments," Reyes said. "The continuing effects on one's quality of life cannot be understated."