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Pinellas Congressman Gus Bilirakis seeks videos from veterans suffering from burn pit exposure

A bulldozer dumps a load of trash into a burn pit just 300 yards from the runway at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in a 2012 photo. [Photo Credit: Mark Rankin]
Published Apr. 8

TAMPA — U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis is taking a cue from sportscaster Warner Wolf as he tries to convince lawmakers to help troops exposed to poisonous toxins from burning waste.

The Pinellas Republican is going to the videotape.

As part of his effort to reintroduce a bill making veterans exposed to burn pit toxins eligible for VA benefits, Bilirakis has asked key leaders in the veterans community to provide video testimony about their experience with burn pits, and the health complications they've experienced as a result, said his spokeswoman, Summer Robertson.

"We intend to use those testimonies to help compel other members of congress to co-sponsor the initiative," she said.

Retired Army colonel D.J. Reyes of Tampa, who served as a top Army intelligence officer in combat zones across Afghanistan and Iraq, is the first veteran to make a video of his experiences with burn pits.

When he retired, a doctor found scar tissue on his lungs — evidence of long-term respiratory problems.

Now Reyes, 62, is one of nearly 170,000 people who have registered with the Department of Veterans Affairs because of health problems they blame on their exposure to burn pits — the military's crude, low-tech method for disposing of trash in war zones.

Human waste. Spent ammunition. Batteries. Dead animals. All were placed in open pits and burned with jet fuel. It happened most often in austere forward operating bases, where incinerators or other methods were deemed impractical.

Reyes said he made the video to help Bilirakis, vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, convince fellow legislators that the VA should presume certain health problems were caused by burn pit exposure. It is similar, Reyes said, to how Vietnam War veterans exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange are helped.

"The eventual end-state is for Congress to acknowledge such exposure and resulting illnesses as a presumptive condition (for compensation), and to also offer more services and treatment for those afflicted," he said.

In the past, the VA has chafed at the concept, saying there is not enough scientific evidence to link burn pit exposure to illness.

Lauren Price, a Navy veteran from New Port Richey, drove a truck with the Navy in Baghdad during 2007 and 2008. She remembers the smoke from plastic water bottles, plastic foam containers, batteries and vehicle parts covered with paint.

"I breathed that every day for 13 months," said Price, 54, who retired as a petty officer first class because of other medical reasons after the Navy denied her claim about respiratory issues.

Price, who runs the Veteran Warriors non-profit organization, is pushing hard against the idea that more studies are needed to link exposure to illness.

"Our position is that the scientific research not only exists, but numerous federal agencies have been documenting and providing this information" to the Pentagon and VA for decades, said Price, who also plans to do a video supporting Bilirakis' bill, which her organization helped craft. "The current positions that they cannot confirm causality is simply unsubstantiated."

On April 25, Veteran Warriors is hosting a symposium in Washington D.C. that Price calls the most comprehensive educational conference ever held on the subject of toxic exposures.

The guest list includes burn pit sufferers and families of the deceased, veteran service organizations and legislative staff. Bilirakis expects to attend, Robertson said.

VA officials would not comment on the proposed legislation, but said they already provide some benefits for those exposed.

From June 2007 through Nov. 30, 2018, the VA processed 11,581 disability compensation claims with at least one condition related to burn pit exposure, said VA spokesman Randy Noller. Of those, 2,318 claims had at least one burn pit condition granted.

During the same time frame, the VA processed 13.4-million total claims.

"In other words, from June 2007 through Nov. 30, 2018, burn pit related claims accounted for .086 percent of claims processed," Noller said.

Bilirakis thinks veterans would benefit from seeing burn pit exposure achieve the same status as Agent Orange. The new legislation is expected to be released later this week, said Robertson, who said it will be similar to a bill filed last year that didn't make it out of committee.

If you are a veteran with burn pit related health problems and want to submit a video, email Summer.Robertson@mail.house.gov.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman

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