Brie Cadman / Change.org – 2010-10-11 22:32:51
(October 05, 2010) — Before Tim Wymore left for his tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, he was in great health. He played softball and golf, and rode a Harley. He was so active, says his wife Shanna, she struggled to keep up with him.
But now, at the age of 44, he’s fighting for his life. He has lesions in his brain and one in his eye. He can’t walk without a cane and help from his wife. He has a damaged esophagus, and has had to have three-quarters of his colon removed. Patches and sores dot his body.
Wymore is one of the approximately 350,000 troops that were exposed to fumes from open-air burn pits, makeshift landfills present at almost every military installation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The football field-sized holes were filled with medical and human waste, batteries, plastics, humvee doors, body parts — you name it — and then doused with fuel and set afire. The billowing black fumes constantly wafted over bases and infiltrated lungs.
Returning from service, numerous veterans have pointed to the pits and their toxic smoke as the cause of myriad health problems.
Wymore is one of 300 victims and families that have filed a class-action lawsuit against KBR and Halliburton, the military contractors that operated the burn pits. Last month, a federal judge ruled the case could proceed.
Wymore was stationed at Balad Base, which had one of the largest — and most notorious –burn pits. As part of his orders, he made several trips to the bases’ burn pit each week to dispose of waste. According to his wife, he was never issued a mask to wear while near the pits.
“The soldiers sign on the dotted line to saying they will serve and protect. But were they protected? No.”
Though burn pits seemed like just another nuisance of war, many vets recognized their potential for harm.
On Burn Pits Action Center, a website dedicated to veterans and their families, user Joshua Tanton writes, “While I was in Qalat, Afghanistan I made several trips to the burn pit. Everything from lithium and alkaline batteries, to everyday trash and even body parts were dumped in there. The pit stayed lit 24-7 and was constantly blowing black smoke over our FOB [forward operating base]. Every time I had to go to Kandahar I was sick for the first 3-5 days I was there.”
Another user Rigo, posts, “I was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, CML after returning from a tour in Iraq. I was stationed in Camp Taji, Iraq and made frequent trips to the burn pits to dump garbage. I was never given any safety equipment while entering these pits and still can recall the nasty smell every time I went.”
The numerous health complaints prompted the military to restrict their use. The Balad pits were shut down at the end of 2009, and officials have pledged to eliminate all burn pits by the end of this year, though some are still in use in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has also funded a large study to be conducted by the Institute of Medicine to determine the health effects of exposure to burn pits, to be completed in May 2012. Until then, they are hesitant to directly link the pits to health effects, and dealing with disability on a case-by-case basis.
Wymore’s wife says this means being given the run-around by the VA and Department of Defense.
Although the Veterans Administration acknowledges his health problems are war-related, they haven’t given Wymore a final diagnosis. He has been unable to work, yet hasn’t been given disability. The VA wants to wait until 2012, in case his condition improves. Yet if Tim passes away before he gets the disability, his wife and three sons may not get survivor’s benefits. His wife has had to quit her job to take care of him and is now fighting to keep their house.
“Something needs to be done for families that gave up everything. When he came back and had both arms and legs I was so happy. But I had no idea what I was up against.”
A statement on the Pentagon’s Force Health Protection and Readiness Program states that, “While exposure to burn pit smoke may cause temporary coughing and redness or stinging of the eyes, extensive environmental monitoring indicates that smoke exposures not interfering with breathing or requiring medical treatment at the time of exposure usually do not cause any lasting health effects or medical follow-up.”
Nearly 7 percent of troops who spent time near one the open-air pit at Balad Air Base in Iraq came home with serious respiratory illnesses, according to a study published in Allergy and Asthma Proceedings.
Wymore’s wife, Shanna, worries that the legal action will take too long to help their family.
“There’s not enough money in the world that can bring his life back.”
To stand up for the veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, sign this petition urging your Representative to support burn pit legislation.
Brie Cadman is Change.org’s health editor. Previous professions include biochemist, clinical trial coordinator, indoor air pollution researcher and farm hand. She earned her Master of Public Health from U.C. Berkeley.