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A Burning Controversy: Are burn pits affecting the health of service members?

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PART 1: A SOLDIER’S STORY | PART 2: BATTLING THE BURN | PART 3: HELP AT HOME | PART 4: WASHINGTON RESPONDS | IN-DEPTH EXTRAS | 12 ON 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — On Nov. 14, 2018, June Heston, of Vermont, said goodbye to her husband of 30 years. Brigadier General Michael Heston, a Providence native, died after a 22-month battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  

“You make plans, and you work towards what you are going to do in your retirement,” June said during a sit-down interview with Eyewitness News Reporter Caroline Goggin. “Now that’s not going to happen, and that’s hard.”

Brig. Gen. Heston served as the assistant adjutant general for the Vermont National Guard. His wife said he was deployed three times to Afghanistan. His last deployment was with the Rhode Island National Guard. 

In 2016, almost four years after returning home from his final deployment, June said her husband got sick. Brig. Gen. Heston was eventually diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. 

In a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Heston’s doctor, Dr. Thomas A. Abrams, said: “it is in my professional opinion more likely than not that General Heston’s pancreatic cancer is due to prolonged environmental exposures sustained over the course of his deployments to Afghanistan.”

Read the full letter to Brig. Gen. Heston

Dr. Abrams said Brig. Gen. Heston didn’t have any “genetic, medical, dietary or behavioral risk factors commonly associated with pancreatic cancer.” He added that his conclusion was based on “prolonged carcinogenic exposures (metals, chemicals and smoke from burn pits) sustained over the course of Gen. Heston’s deployments and the timing of those deployments relative to the onset and diagnosis of his pancreatic cancer.”

“[Dr. Abrams] also says Mike is the canary in the coal mine,” June Heston said. “This is going to become a bigger and bigger problem because so many of our service members have been exposed overseas.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, burn pits “were a common way to get rid of waste at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

However, an April 2019 report from the Department of Defense to Congress shows this method of waste disposal is currently used on military bases in other countries as well. In the report, the Department of Defense said there are nine active burn pits overseas: Seven in Syria, one in Afghanistan, and one in Egypt. The DOD said seven of the pits are operated by U.S. Forces, while the other two are operated by contractors. 

Interactive Map: Burn Pit Hotspots »

Due to the high level of toxic materials produced by these types of open-air incinerators, burn pits were mostly banned by the U.S. government in 2010.  The National Defense Authorization Act from that year says, “the Secretary of Defense shall prescribe regulations prohibiting the disposal of covered waste in open-air burn pits during contingency operations except in circumstances in which the Secretary determines that no alternative disposal method is feasible.” 

Read here: Turn to page 60 on the National Defense Authorization Act

A Soldier’s Story

In March, Eyewitness News Reporter Caroline Goggin spoke with a member of the Rhode Island National Guard about the burn pits he said he was exposed to during his time overseas. He asked to remain anonymous.  

“If I had to describe it, it was like burning rubber. Just a thick smog rolling across the area, depending on which way the wind blew.”

From Oct. 2017 to Sept. 2018, this soldier served in Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria. He said there were five to 10 visible burn pits on his military bases in Iraq, and one burning pit on his base in Syria. 

He said there was burning every day — telling us everything was burned, from “batteries to bodies.”

Now back at home, he said he’s dealing with mysterious health issues that didn’t exist pre-deployment, including unexplained rashes all over his body. 

“I wouldn’t want to go over there to know I’m going to come back the way I came back.”

Battling the Burn

Hoping to find answers, this soldier linked up with the Hunter Seven Foundation in Providence last fall. The foundation was launched last summer with the goal to research the effects of burn pits and other forms of toxic exposure on members of the military.  

One of the organization’s founders, Chelsey Poisson, said she fears the military may never be able to stop the burning. She found out about it from her boyfriend during a conversation they had in 2014. He served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. 

“He was there for 15 months, and he told me all his friends passed away. And I said ‘what do you mean?’ He said, ‘yeah they died.’ And I said, ‘Yeah that’s war. Not to be insensitive.’ And he said ‘no, they died when they got home’,” Poisson explained. 

Help at Home

Last summer, the Hunter Seven Foundation created a survey for soldiers to complete that takes into account their health pre-deployment, during deployment, and when they returned home. Poisson said the results from that survey indicate exposure to burn pits, and other toxins overseas could be causing long-term health effects on service members and veterans. 

In response, the foundation drafted a proposed bill. It would establish a federally-mandated requirement that when service members and veterans alike go to a civilian health care provider, hospital, or walk-in clinic, one of the questions they are asked is “are you a veteran or have you served in the military?”

“We have all the data. We’ve studied this. We have all the numbers,” Poisson said. “Let us sit down and show you how you can make a difference in the lives of potentially 4.2 million veterans in 2039.”

Washington Responds

At this time, the Department of Defense acknowledges there are short-term health effects related to exposure to burn pits, but says “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”

“This has the potential making of the modern-day Agent Orange,” Kasim Yarn, the director of the Rhode Island Office of Veterans Affairs, told Caroline Goggin in an interview. 

Director Yarn urges any eligible vets and service members to join the burn pit registry, which allows them to document their exposure and report any health concerns. Since April 2014, more than 178,000 veterans and service members have enrolled in the registry. 

“If you served in Afghanistan or Iraq as a veteran, go consult your physician. Get on the burn pit registry. Take the survey. Seek out advice and consultation from your primary care physician,” Director Yarn explained. 

If you are a service member and have health concerns related to burn pits register in the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Burn Pit Registry

If you’d like to share a story related to this issue, contact WPRI 12 Eyewitness News reporter Caroline Goggin at cgoggin@wpri.com.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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