Sens. Klobuchar and Tillis: We can’t let burn pits become the new Agent Orange

A prosthetic leg. A scarred face. A burned hand. When we think of the wounds our soldiers endure, we think of injuries we can see. But sometimes these wounds go unseen and, too often uncared for.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. sprayed 80 million liters of Agent Orange, contaminating water and exposing more than two million members of the military.

After being exposed to this toxin, Vietnam vets came home with nerve, skin, digestive and respiratory disorders. By the thousands, veterans turned to hospitals for help. But it took the government years to recognize that there was a link between Agent Orange and the devastating health effects on our soldiers. So, veterans had to wait to get the care they desperately needed and clearly earned.

Today we have a new Agent Orange: Burn pits.

At military sites across Iraq and Afghanistan, burn pits are used for waste disposal. Old batteries, aerosol cans, tires, dead animals, and even human waste are tossed into the pit and set ablaze, sometimes aided by serious fire accelerants like jet fuel. Burn pits represent a shortcut to waste disposal in the Middle East, where lacking infrastructure means there are few alternatives for trash disposal.

The volumes and types of materials vary by site, but the Department of Defense has estimated that between 65,000 and 85,000 pounds of solid waste are burned each day at large bases. One Joint Base burned up to 147 tons of waste per day as recently as the summer of 2008. The open-air pits would frequently burn 24 hours a day. Soldiers are, and have been, been exposed to them in a big way. And while they are now being replaced with incinerators and landfills, that exposure has begun raising serious health concerns.

Melissa Gillett was a member of the 148th Fighter Wing based in Duluth, Minnesota. Melissa got into the National Guard with the intention on staying in for 20 years. That changed after her deployment to Afghanistan and exposure to burn pits. Melissa has experienced a host of negative health effects like sinus and respiratory issues. She has been diagnosed with asthma and sinusitis. Because of her breathing issues, Melissa was unable to pass her fitness test and can no longer serves in the National Guard. 

Stories like Melissa’s are all too common. During sustained operations overseas, many North Carolina-based service members were directly exposed to burn pits for extended periods of time.  Especially in the early stages of engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, forward operating bases relied heavily on burn pits, inundating Marines from Camp Lejeune and soldiers from Fort Bragg with smoke, debris, and lingering particle dust that carried along a toxic mix from the burn pits. 

When a veteran’s wounds aren’t visible, providing the proof necessary for a claim with the VA can be burdensome. But it shouldn’t be – we’ve learned that much from experience.

Cancer, reproductive effects, cardiovascular toxicity, insomnia, and respiratory diseases are just some of the health problems being named by the nearly 65,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have begun the process of filing reports with the VA’s voluntary registry. Of veterans who completed the questionnaire in its entirety, 30 percent stated that they have been diagnosed with respiratory diseases.

Our bipartisan bill, the Help Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act, would create a center of excellence at the VA to better understand and begin to address the health needs of veterans who have fallen ill after exposure to burn pits. The bill has broad support from health care organizations and nonprofits serving veterans, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the American Lung Association. This critical legislation will move us in the right direction by dedicating staff and resources to exploring prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions stemming from exposure to burn pits.

There was no waiting line for our men and women in uniform when they raised their right hands and volunteered to serve. There shouldn’t be a waiting line when they return home and need our help getting the care they’ve earned. We must do right by our veterans. We can’t let burn pits become this generation’s Agent Orange. 

Democrat Amy Klobuchar is the senior senator from Minnesota and Republican Thom Tillis is the junior senator from North Carolina.

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