What Are Burn Pits, and How Did They Harm U.S. Troops?

On bases established for America’s post-9/11 wars, the U.S. military’s trash was often burned in huge, open-air lots on the perimeters of the overseas outposts.

Some of these blazes burned continuously for years as discarded computers, furniture and other refuse like medical waste were thrown in, releasing toxic smoke and particulate matter into the air that troops and civilians breathed in.

Over time, it became apparent that many former service members exposed to these toxins had become ill. On Wednesday, President Biden signed a law that expands medical benefits to them.

The legislation, known as the PACT Act, is intended to help veterans suffering from respiratory ailments, cancer and other diseases that were most likely caused by exposure to toxins released by trash fires on combat outposts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said that as of July 1, it had approved disability claims for respiratory conditions from nearly 573,000 veterans deployed to combat zones after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But the claims of 315,000 veterans were denied, the department said.

Two common reasons for denials have been “no diagnosis of the claimed condition” and “no medical nexus between the claimed condition and military service,” said Joe Williams, a department spokesman.

Now veterans with certain conditions who believe they were exposed to toxins will no longer have to prove their cases individually — a process that often involved hiring outside medical experts, which not everyone could afford.

What are burn pits?

Many items that the U.S. military needed to get rid of were eventually sent to what troops called a burn pit. (Unneeded, damaged or excess ammunition and explosives would be blown up by specialists elsewhere.)

Soda cans, broken crates, torn uniforms, worn-out boots, classified papers, food wrappers, tires and jet fuel all ended up in the same place.

Some of the so-called pits were not necessarily a hole in the ground but often took the form of open areas many hundreds of feet across on larger bases.

Burn Pits and Veterans’ Health

  • A Bitter Struggle: U.S. service members have long insisted that the military’s garbage-disposal fires in war zones made them ill. For years, the government denied responsibility.
  • Expanding Benefits: After a groundswell of pressure on Congress to act, a new law will expand medical benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits on U.S. military bases.
  • How the Bill Passed: The legislation was approved by Congress despite a last-minute delay by Republican senators, who backed down after an intense backlash.
  • A Supreme Court Ruling: In a recent 5-to-4 decision, the justices sided with an Army reservist injured by burn pits in Iraq who said he had been discriminated against by his employer, the state of Texas.

Without incinerators or landfills on site, this became the most expeditious way for military forces to dispose of items, according to Bart Stichman, a founder and special counsel at the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit group that helps veterans seeking government benefits, including those filing disability claims for exposure to toxins.

On many bases and outposts, the fires smoldered more or less the entire time U.S. troops were living there.

Burn pits were used to dispose of items across many combat outposts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries.Credit…Sebastian Meyer/Corbis, via Getty Images

What did burn pits look like?

In his remarks before signing the bill into law on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said that he had seen “burn pits the size of football fields” during more than 20 visits to overseas military bases.

He recalled seeing the residue from those fires in the air.

“A lot of the places where our soldiers were sleeping were literally a quarter-mile, a half-mile away from it, and where they ate their chow,” Mr. Biden said. “I mean, it was there all the time — toxic smoke thick with poisons spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops.”

Where were the pits?

“Pretty much everywhere that American troops set up bases,” Mr. Stichman said, “including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Djibouti.”

How were service members exposed to this toxic smoke?

The smell of burning trash was inescapable on many bases. But some service members had up-close exposure, such as those assigned with dumping refuse into the fires. Others were ordered to stand guard within feet of the blazes to ensure that none of the discarded items were stolen before they were burned.

From July 2009 to July 2010, Lee Cosens was a junior enlisted soldier serving as a military police officer in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He spent four to six hours at a time every week keeping watch in case Afghan police officers or contractors on his base tried to steal uniforms or other discarded articles.

What did burn pits smell like?

Mr. Cosens said it “always smelled like burning plastic”— a low-level annoyance that often turned particularly acrid depending on what was being destroyed.

“If it was just smoldering like on a normal day, it smelled like if you threw a plastic bag on a fire,” he said. “But if you burned things like unused meal packs, then it got really strong. You could tell those days — like a super strong, melting plastic smell.”

What kinds of medical problems did they cause?

A long list of medical ailments have been linked to toxic exposure from burn pits. For Mr. Cosens, it manifested with a diagnosis of stage four kidney cancer in March 2021.

He had suspected that he might have a kidney stone, but a CT scan revealed a large mass on his left kidney — cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and a lung.

The Department of Veterans Affairs initially denied his disability claim, which linked his aggressive cancer to his time guarding a burn pit in Kandahar, but later approved it after he sought help from National Veterans Legal Services Program, Mr. Cosens said.

He was tracking the PACT Act as it made its way through Congress.

“It would have made my fight through the system a thousand times easier than what it was,” Mr. Cosens, 39, said of the measure. “I was happy seeing it signed into law, knowing that it’ll help other vets who are in the same boat I am. It’ll make their fight with the V.A. system easier, hopefully.”

The department has been paying for Mr. Cosens to receive specialty care from civilian medical providers, and his prognosis has greatly improved. But he will probably need to take oral chemotherapy drugs and intravenous immunotherapy medications for the rest of his life.

Who else was exposed to these toxins?

It is unclear whether anyone other than U.S. troops may be suffering from exposure to the toxic fumes, such as service members from allied countries who served tours on the same bases or civilians living downwind.

No large-scale organized attempt has been made to study the potential harm caused to civilians who breathed the same smoke but were just outside the bases, according to Eoghan Darbyshire, an environmental scientist with the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a British charity that studies the harm to people and the environment from military activities.

“The work simply hasn’t been done, and it is complicated work to do — impossible even, given all the other comorbidities for the local populations from environmental exposures and all the other effects of war,” Mr. Darbyshire said. “But of course if they were exposed to the same smoke, then there will be similar outcomes — quite possibly worse for the children, elderly and medically vulnerable.”

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