WASHINGTON — J.D. Williams didn’t think much about the smoke cloud that often shrouded his air base in Iraq. Not when it covered everything he owned with black soot or when his wheezing and coughing made it difficult to sleep.
‘‘We just went about our business because there was a war going on,’’ said Williams, a retired chief warrant officer who was responsible for maintaining some 250 aircraft for the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
He returned home from that second stint in Iraq in 2006 and subsequently was diagnosed with an irreversible lung disease that his doctor suspects could be related to smoke from one of the hundreds of burn pits that dotted Iraq and Afghanistan during the course of the two wars.
The pits were used to burn the garbage that accumulates at military bases, everything from Styrofoam and metal to paints, solvents, human waste, and medical waste.
A new Department of Veterans Affairs registry, mandated by Congress, will be used to try to determine if there is a link between the burn pits and long-term health problems.
Military personnel who were stationed near an open burn pit can sign up. Researchers will use the database to monitor health trends in participants, and the VA will alert them to major problems detected.
The findings could make it easier for veterans who served near burn pits to obtain disability payments.
Williams, 56, of Huntsville, Ala., was initially told that he would have to prove that his illness, diagnosed as constrictive bronchiolitis, was service-related. He walked out of the room. Eventually, after he traveled to Washington and met with members of Congress, the VA increased his disability rating 10 percent.
He said he’s hoping the registry will pave the way for other soldiers to avoid a similarly exasperating process. If researchers find certain illnesses are linked to exposure to burn pits, then the VA would be more likely to declare those illnesses a presumptive condition, eliminating the need for a veteran to prove that his or her illness is service-related.
Sixty-three burn pits were still being used in Afghanistan as of Dec. 26; those in Iraq were closed by December 2010. Camps with fewer than 100 people are not required to report the use of a burn pit. Proponents say the burn pits were so widespread that the majority of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan could participate in the registry.
In 2009, the military updated its policies on burn pits to prohibit the burning of hazardous materials such as certain medical waste, batteries, and tires, and whenever possible, to situate them where the smoke would not blow over work and living quarters.
The creation of the burn pit registry has been several years in the making.
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Darrin Curtis said in a memo disclosed by the Army Times in 2008 that he believed a burn pit at Joint Base Balad was an acute health hazard.
Congressional hearings followed that featured sick veterans and contractors .
The Pentagon said that none of the monitoring conducted at Balad identified an increased risk for long-term health problems. It has maintained that position over the years but also acknowledges that some personnel have persistent symptoms.