Like Agent Orange before, burn pits sicken new generation of veterans

A bulldozer dumps a load of trash into a burn pit 300 yards from the runway at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan. This pit and others at the base were replaced later by a $5.5 million trash disposal plant.
A bulldozer dumps a load of trash into a burn pit 300 yards from the runway at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan. This pit and others at the base were replaced later by a $5.5 million trash disposal plant.
Published Oct. 14, 2017

TAMPA — D.J. Reyes served as a top Army intelligence officer in combat zones across Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Those were long days, long nights, a lot of stress, a horrible environment," Reyes said. "But I had a mission to do."

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

Now Reyes is one of nearly 120,000 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, Reyes recalled, in settings — especially austere forward operating bases — where incinerators or other methods were deemed impractical.

"All my life I was an athlete. I used to run a lot," said Reyes, 60, of Tampa, who retired as a colonel in 2013. But after a time, he knew there was something wrong when his breathing became labored.

Still, he said: "I am lucky. I am still alive."

Lauren Price, who drove a truck with the Navy in Baghdad during 2007 and 2008, 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, 52, of New Port Richey, who retired as a petty officer first class because of other medical reasons after the Navy denied her claim about respiratory issues.

Price never signed up for the VA registry, created by order of Congress in 2013.

Medical providers don't review it, she said, nor do those who make decisions on VA benefits. "It is basically useless, except for the VA to have a running total."

The federal government, in fact, is doing little or nothing to help those who may be suffering because of burn pit fumes, Reyes and Price say — a failure that brings to mind an earlier generation's long fight for recognition of the harm caused by the chemical defoliant used in the Vietnam War.

"My dad was an Agent Orange guy," Reyes said, speaking of retired Army warrant officer Alfred Reyes Jr. "He told me, 'This is your Agent Orange.' "

• • •

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the military contractor that operated some of the pits — KBR Inc., a subsidiary of oil field services giant Halliburton. Attorneys bringing the action say at least 10 people have died from health problems tied to burn pits, and they allege negligence in the operation of burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq.

KBR, in denying those claims, argues that decisions on what and when to burn were made by the military.

Maryland U.S. District Court Judge Roger Titus agreed with the argument in a July 19 ruling dismissing the suit.

Company officials said that on the "limited number" of bases where they operated burn pits, their personnel "did so safely and effectively."

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KBR also said other environmental issues were present in the region and that 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."

Susan Burke, an attorney representing veterans in the class action suit, said an appeal of the ruling would be filed Monday with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

Burke argues that KBR is responsible for how the pits were operated: "KBR's actions were not consistent with military decisions set forth in the contract."

She said the death toll may be higher than cited in the lawsuit.

Pentagon officials say they know of no burn pits operated by the military today, but they did notify Congress of one run by a contractor that closed recently.

• • •

In December 2006, Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis wrote in a 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 noted that commanders had known of the problem for years.

D.J. Reyes remembers vividly the acrid smoke rising from massive open pits where he was stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first time came as troops raced across Iraq toward Baghdad in 2003, said Reyes, who was serving as intelligence officer for Maj. Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus, who went on to become director of the CIA, was then commanding the 101st Airborne Division.

"I realized something was wrong when I got back from the invasion," said Reyes, who now works with the Hillsborough County Veterans Treatment Court. "It was kind of scary."

Reyes underwent a battery of tests but the results were inconclusive. He returned to war zones in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and Afghanistan in 2011 to 2012, when he was exposed to smoke from the burn pits again and again.

Price, operating a truck at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, also helped teach Iraqi soldiers about how to drive in convoys. After a few of the soldiers came down with tuberculosis, she began to notice her own breathing issues.

In 2008, a doctor examined her, finding no indication of cancer or tuberculosis. There were signs, though, of health problems "consistent with asthma in this young female with significant chemical exposures in Iraq during military service," according to an October 2008 report by Dr. Robert Miller with the USF Health Sciences Center Medical Clinic.

"I suspect at this point that reactive airways disease is related to these exposures," Miller wrote.

Of the 120,000 service members and veterans listed so far, about 94 percent report exposure during deployment and about 64 percent report specific work duties at a burn pit, said Curt Cashour, the VA's spokesman.

About 2,700 registrants have been medically evaluated at a VA facility and nearly half reported respiratory issues, Cashour said.

Burn pit exposure is not treated by the VA like Agent Orange, where certain illnesses are presumed to be caused by the exposure, but patients can still seek treatment, he said.

Other airborne irritants in the Middle East region have added to the complexity of dealing with patients. Reyes, for instance, was also exposed to plumes of smoke from oil fields the Iraqis set ablaze in 2003.

• • •

Last year, Gregory Lovett read The Burn Pits, a book by Joe Hickman.

"It really shocked and angered me and I decided to try to bring the story of this crisis to a larger audience," said Lovett, 57, an American-born film maker now living in the Netherlands.

He began work on Delay, Deny, Hope You Die in July 2016 and finished two months ago.

His efforts to get the documentary distributed have been helped by people in the Tampa area, he said, including Lauren Price and David Cory, a local attorney who runs the Veterans News Hour. Reyes and others involved in Veterans Treatment Court have helped, too.

Screenings are scheduled for Oct. 19 at the AMC Veterans 24, 9302 Anderson Road in Tampa, and if enough tickets are sold, for Nov. 1 at the Regency 20 & IMAX, 2496 W Brandon Blvd, Brandon.

"We are trying to reach everybody," Lovett said. "Most people have not heard about the crisis of the burn pits and ultimately we will need the general public to help create awareness of this tragic issue affecting thousands of soldiers so that they are ultimately recognized and compensated."

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