Editorials

EDITORIAL

The promise of health care for Iraq veterans

ALEX KINGSBURY / GLOBE STAFF
A burn pit in Diyala Province, Iraq, in fall 2008.

Veronica Landry didn’t fight on the front lines when she was posted to a military base in Mosul in 2004 and 2005. Instead, Landry, a contractor for Kellogg Brown & Root, ran an Internet cafe and helped out at a recreation center for troops. But she suffered dire consequences nevertheless. She was running a karaoke event when mortars exploded all around her, and although she fled to a bunker, she ended up giving CPR to a wounded soldier who later died. After that came sleepless nights and flashbacks.

Then there was toxic black smoke billowing out every day from the hellfire in the burn pits. In part because enclosed incinerators are expensive and difficult to install, US military bases like the one in Mosul burned their waste out in the open — everything from plastic water bottles to ammunition to paint thinner. Landry links her own lasting lung ailments to that foul miasma. Surprisingly, last month, a judge agreed with her, Fox News reported, ruling that open-air burn pits are connected to lung disease.

The decision by Christopher Larsen, an administrative law judge in the US Department of Labor, is good news for Landry, because it concludes that her employer and insurance carrier are liable for “all past, present,and future reasonable and necessary medical treatment.” It also marks a noteworthy victory for service members and veterans who have registered with the government’s Burn Pit Registry — now 64,000 strong — but feel they haven’t gotten adequate medical care.

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After the Vietnam War, the VA cut the red tape needed for treatment for diseases linked to Agent Orange. Post-deployment care for respiratory illnesses associated with burn pits or other airborne toxins in Iraq and Afghanistan should be handled the same way.

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There is bipartisan support in Congress for a measure that would direct the VA to set up a specialized center to study, diagnose, and treat health issues related to burn pit exposure in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it’s clear that veterans shouldn’t bear the cost of the nation’s long season of war alone. “These burn pits are cauldrons of chemical pollutants, endangering the health of our nation’s bravest,” said Senator Ed Markey, one of the bill’s cosponsors. “We have an obligation to care for those poisoned by burn pits and other environmental hazards while serving in Iraq.”

It’s a worthy concept, one that deserves to be codified into law. But some families don’t want to wait for the legislative process, says Rosie Torres, founder of Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has the authority to add lung disease to the list of conditions covered, Torres notes. Now, all that’s needed is leadership.