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Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Could Be Rounding a Corner in 2021

Amie Muller was an Air Force tech deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq twice during her time in service. The Balad Air Base burned 100 to 200 tons of waste per day and had burn pits that were more than 10 acres in size. Just 10 years after Muller’s last deployment, she passed away due to pancreatic cancer at age 36. 

Muller is not alone when it comes to veterans who have served in the post-9/11 wars and were exposed to burn pits. These pits were used to burn garbage, plastic, jet fuel, vehicles, and human waste. They were deemed a necessity due to the lack of infrastructure at remote outposts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Amie’s husband Brian Muller recalled some journal entries from Amie during her time in Iraq. In one entry, she wrote “The ventilators that they used to clean the filters after two days were like black soup, and she wrote about the things they put in burn pits that you shouldn’t burn.”

Veterans and advocates have been pushing for changes when it comes to the health impacts and coverage related to burn pits for years. Their efforts have been met with delays in congress and pushback by the Department of Veteran Affairs. Some of that may be changing this year, however, as momentum builds with high-profile advocates and well-supported measures on Capitol Hill. 

A big piece of the momentum comes from the new president. President Joe Biden has long suspected that his son Beau’s brain cancer was due to exposure of burn pits in Iraq. Beau Biden was also at Balad Air Base. Biden, at a 2019 Service Employees International Union convention, stated that “because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he [Beau] came back with Stage Four glioblastoma.”

Currently, support for veterans who have linked their health conditions to burn pit exposure is limited. The VA created a registry for those veterans who believe their illnesses are linked to exposure but this is largely a data collection tool. Why, after over a decade of fighting, is a data collection tool the only thing veterans and advocates can show for their hard work? It’s largely due to the VA, who has repeatedly called for more data on the subject. Approximately 75% of disability claims related to burn-pit exposure have been denied. It falls on the veteran to not only prove that they have been exposed to burn pits, but also to provide evidence supporting the link between that exposure and their health condition. 

Comedian Jon Stewart has played a prominent role in the fight for these veterans since leaving “The Daily Show.” Working with representatives like Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, Stewart has been somewhat of a powerhouse lobbyist on Capitol Hill. He plans to continue his aggressive campaign for veterans affected by burn pit exposure. But still, Stewart has acknowledged how hard it can be to work with congress. “Within Congress, there’s territorial guarding, and people don’t want to cooperate unless they’re going to get credit,” he said. “You have these institutional issues, even the [veteran service organizations] have been beaten down and settled for small victories they can take back to their constituents. But it all comes down to money. One, they [Congress] don’t want to stick their necks out and, two, not wanting to spend the money. When you’re downrange, you’re important; then you’re home, nobody cares.”

While the fight for veterans exposed to burn pits has met its fair share of speed bumps, and will likely continue to do so, momentum may be shifting with a President that understands burn pits and their health implications. 

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