ALEX KINGSBURY/GLOBE STAFF
In his victory speech early Wednesday morning, Donald Trump included a quick, if imprecise, promise to “finally take care of our great veterans, who have been so loyal.”
Indeed, Trump’s presidential campaign drew wide support from vets of a number of different American wars — many of whom feel burned by the political class in Washington and have been galvanized by Trump’s vow to fire bureaucrats at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But now that the votes have been tallied, Trump must be held to his campaign promises on veterans’ issues, particularly the gaps that remain in post-deployment health care. One good place to start: a sweeping review of respiratory ailments that plague soldiers many years after returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The causes are thought to be many. Improvised explosive devices can vaporize Humvees, creating a miasma of easily inhaled metal particles. Choking sandstorms sweep through. But one of the most dangerous sources of toxins has been right under the noses of everyone living on a military base: open-air burn pits used to incinerate garbage.
Because enclosed incinerators can be expensive and difficult to deploy, US military bases made a habit of tossing tons of waste into a hole dug in the desert. What constituted waste? Batteries. Paint. Tires. Amputated human limbs. Electronics. Plastics. This toxic detritus then was doused with fuel and torched. Foul plumes of smoke spewed into the open air, often billowing across barracks where soldiers slept. The flames were stoked around the clock: The burn pit at Camp Anaconda in Iraq operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, from 2003 to 2009, according to Anthony Szema, a physician and researcher at Stony Brook University and Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine in New York.
The impact on the health of soldiers, in many cases, appears to be permanent. Vets report they’re too short of breath to exercise or hold down a job. Some develop serious — and sometimes fatal — lung disease.
Dr. Robert Miller, a pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University, has found increased instances of a potentially crippling lung disease called constrictive bronchiolitis — rare in young adults — in soldiers who served in northern Iraq. The disease is associated with inhaling a variety of chemicals, including poisonous sulfur dioxide.
Jessey Baca, a member of the New Mexico Air National Guard who was stationed at Camp Anaconda, in Iraq, knows these problems well — and he and his wife, Maria, have become advocates for better tracking through a voluntary registry set up by Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit civilian website. At 56, Baca suffers from a host of illnesses, including lung disease and cancer. “My lungs are on fire, and it makes it hard to breathe. I’m always tired. It comes with the territory, I guess, but I’d like to see veterans receive medical benefits without having to fight the system so hard.”
There are many costs for a nation at war, especially during a prolonged conflict like that in Afghanistan. But those costs should not be borne alone by soldiers and their families. After decades of pressure from Vietnam-era veterans and activists, diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure were presumed to be service-related conditions. That “presumptive policy” simplified the process for getting coverage and care from the Veterans Administration. Post-deployment respiratory illnesses associated with burn pits or other airborne toxins are not handled the same way.
The Veterans Administration is working with the Department of Defense to develop research protocols, and the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry has been set up. Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton, himself a veteran, cosponsored a bill that would direct the VA to establish a “center of excellence” in diagnosing and treating health conditions relating to burn-pit exposure in Afghanistan or Iraq. “This issue is a great example of why the VA health care system is important,” Moulton said. “Rather than blow it up, we need to reform the VA and do the kind of research needed for veterans.”
Taken as a whole, these responses are merely a beginning. Society has a collective responsibility to honor the sacrifice of veterans. Trump, who boasts that he’ll “drain the swamp” when he gets to Washington, can best serve veterans by tempering his chest-thumping rhetoric and actually working across the aisle with Democrats. Perhaps then, Trump can live up to his promise and bring veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the government-funded care they deserve.
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