Michigan lawmakers' bill aims to help veterans sickened by burn pit exposure

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

During Clarkston resident Jared Enochs' tour in Iraq with the U.S. Army, jet fuel was used to burn waste 24 hours a day in an open-air pit that he estimates at about 10.5 acres in size. 

He breathed the "nauseating" smoke from the pit during his 13-month deployment in 2010 and 2011, working directly around it to discard trash, equipment and "anything that we deemed that wasn't sellable to locals or to be sent home," he said. 

Jared Enochs, an Iraq veteran who lives in Clarkston, speaks on a video call about his job while deployed disposing of waste in a burn pit that he blames for his many health problems.

Enochs, now 31, said he didn't realize the health risks associated with exposure to the toxins in the smoke until he left Iraq, returned to Michigan and was plagued by health problems ranging from neuropathy to colitis to vitamin deficiencies and a condition causing reduced blood flow to his heart, he said. 

He tried for more than 10 years to get coverage and care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but he said it never felt like his underlying medical issues were addressed, so he sought care from private physicians.

"Life has been hard since I came back from Iraq," he said on a Wednesday call. "The VA has made it much harder, in my just trying to get any kind of recognition of this."

A bipartisan pair of Michigan lawmakers who also served in Iraq are pushing legislation that aims to make it easier for veterans like Enochs to get care and benefits for illnesses tied to their prolonged exposure to burn pits overseas.

Smoke from the burn pits, which were common at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries, contains toxins and chemicals. But veterans who experience unexpected sicknesses after exposure are often unable to access benefits, in part because the military has not formally linked the burn pits to illnesses. 

U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, and Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, introduced a bill in Congress this month that would formally concede that service members in certain locations were exposed to toxic chemicals from burn pits during their time of service.

In this Dec. 24, 2007 file photo, U.S. army soldiers from Blackfoot Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment burn garbage at K-wal combat outpost in the village of Shakarat, in the volatile Diyala province, about 90 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq.

This concession, they say, would remove the burden from the veteran seeking care to prove that they were exposed to a burn pit, which were commonly used by the U.S. military overseas to dispose of trash, plastics, batteries, medical and even human waste. 

“The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be fighting the VA at the exact moment you are fighting for your life,” Slotkin said on the Wednesday call.

Their bill is set for a House committee hearing next week. It does not go so far as to call for presumptive benefits for veterans who deployed and are sick due to burn-pit exposure, as does legislation introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.

Meijer sees his and Slotkin's bill as complementary to that legislation. 

"The goal is to bring down the number of claims being denied," Meijer said in an interview. "If you were serving at a location with a burn pit, you wouldn't need to prove that that burn pit had toxin X, Y and Z. ... That that often becomes a hook the VA can hang their hat on in order to deny that claim."

The VA, which is conducting a review of the hazards of burn pits, has estimated that 3.5 million veterans since 2001 served in war zones where they could have been exposed to burn pits.

When asked, the department did not comment on the legislation Wednesday, but Slotkin noted that VA Secretary Denis McDonough indicated at a previous hearing "that he was willing to work with us."

Rep. Peter Meijer

"The fact that they're sending senior-level witnesses to our hearing next week to discuss this, I think is important," she said. "And they need us. They can't do it through unilateral action on their own."

The issue also has the attention of President Joe Biden. Biden has said he suspects his son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46 because of his exposure to burn pits when he served in Iraq.

The VA maintains a burn pit registry, launched in 2014, where over 223,000 veterans have reported exposures.

"VA encourages all veterans who feel they are facing illness because of toxic exposure or burn pits to register at the burn pit registry and immediately submit a claim," said VA spokesman Randy Noller. "The more veterans who do so only helps us gather the information and research needed to provide the care they require."  

But Slotkin has said that many veterans don't submit their names because of the VA's process, and those that do are often denied.

Of the more than 13,000 veterans who submitted disability benefit claims for burn pit-related claims, fewer than 3,000 were granted for the period from June 2007 through December 2020, Slotkin said.

"I think that this is the kind of thing that is vastly underreported. Veterans either do not know or are unwilling to cut through that red tape or attempt to in order to make that claim," she said. "They're just simply dissuaded from even engaging with the VA on this."

Both Slotkin and Meijer noted parallels between the burn-pit issue and the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and pesticides the United States used in the Vietnam War — the effects of which were detected later in cancer clusters around the country. It took years for the government to recognize those illnesses as service-connected.

Slotkin, who served three tours in Iraq as a CIA officer, said she considers burn pits "this generation's Agent Orange."

"I can't think of a day in my three tours that I wasn't smelling particularly noxious fumes," she said. "By the time I ended my third tour, they were testing everyone for some really strange eye infections. We had a whole rash of strange ailments and by the end of my third tour they were testing everybody before you went back home."

Meijer, who served with the U.S. Army in Iraq, said it was especially an issue at some of the smaller bases there, including one joint Iraqi facility just south of Baghdad, where he woke up once to find his room filled with smoke, making him think the building was on fire.

It turned out that Iraqis were burning something that smelled like plastics and other stuff in a 55-gallon drum just below his window, he said. 

The issue is one that Meijer often hears about from veterans who wonder if they have inside of them a "medical ticking time bomb" because of their service overseas.

"Something that's always kind of lingering in the background, as you start to learn of fellow service members who are coming down with various ailments — is this something I need to be worried about, too?" Meijer said.

"The times where I was intimately aware of the burn pits in my facility, it was occasional. It wasn't a daily occurrence. But you can't help but wonder, you know, what was I breathing?"

Veteran Robert Shaner, superintendent of Rochester Community Schools, praised the bill pressed by Slotkin and Meijer.

But he said it's too late for veterans like Sgt. Roy Edington of Lexington, Kentucky, with whom he served in the U.S. Marines in Somalia in 1992.

There, they were exposed to "untold toxic materials," Shaner said, as well as burn pits used to dispose of everything from human waste to captured arms and ammunition. 

Edington died from a rare lung disorder and cancer in February, 25 years after his military service. Shaner said Edington's family is still waiting for adjudication on a VA disability claim related to his toxic exposure.

"Our service members deserve better," Shaner said. 

mburke@detroitnews.com