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Burn pits: Behind the 'silent killer' ignored by the U.S. government for years

(Dan Brewer.)
(Dan Brewer.)

If you are grieving the loss of a fallen service member, or if you know someone who can use support, the TAPS 24/7 National Military Survivor Helpline is available toll-free with support and resources at 800-959-TAPS (8277).

If you’ve been exposed to toxic burn pits, you can also join the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) here.

U.S. troops were ordered to dispose of military waste by digging big holes in the ground and setting the waste on fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Is this even legal what we’re doing? I had a feeling in my gut when I saw what was going on,” Dan Brewer, a retired Army officer, says. “I said, ‘Lord, Lord, if we’re doing this everywhere, this is going to come back to haunt us.’”


So-called burn pits contained used medical supplies, paint, plastic water bottles, batteries, even entire humvees. The smoke was toxic.

“It’s a silent killer, and it may not kill you on the battlefield tomorrow. Down the road, it’s going to cause some long-term health effects,” Brewer says. “And we’re seeing that now, we’re seeing that a lot.”

But the U.S. government has been ignoring these veteran’s medical issues for years.

Today, On Point: Why were these vets ignored, for so long?


Megan Stack, writer for the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times opinion page. Author of the article U.S. Soldiers Came Home Sick. The Government Denied It Was Responsible and the book Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War. (@Megankstack)

Le Roy Torres, retired Army captain. He served for 23 years, and was deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008. A former state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety, he was forced to resign due to lung injuries from burn pit exposure. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear his case later this month. Co-founder of Burn Pits 360, a non-profit that helps vets and their families deal with burn pit exposure. (@trooper1999)

Dan Brewer, retired Army officer. Former burn pit inspector.

Also Featured

Robyn Thomson, widow of former Lieutenant Colonel Todd Thomson, who served in the military for 20.5 years. Her husband died in 2015 of a rare form of colon cancer due to burn pit exposure.

From The Reading List

New York Times: “The Soldiers Came Home Sick. The Government Denied It Was Responsible.” — “The soldiers with inexplicable breathing complaints started appearing in Dr. Robert F. Miller’s pulmonology clinic in 2004, the year after Baghdad fell to invading United States forces.”

TAPS: “Knowledge. Connection. Hope. The Journey of a surviving spouse and her daughters through illness loss” — “Lt. Col. Todd Thomson proudly served his country for 20 and a half years. The love he had for being a soldier made him get up in the morning; it made his wheels turn.”

The War Horse: “Burn Pits—The Military’s Next Agent Orange” — “At a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on September 25, Robert Miller, a pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests came back normal for a few hundred service members he’d recently evaluated. The soldiers had been struggling to run fast enough to pass their fitness tests, becoming tired with normal activity, and generally having difficulty breathing.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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