Following a fierce legal battle inside and outside courtrooms that lasted a decade, veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars lost their final chance to receive compensation for illnesses caused by toxic smoke while serving overseas.
The group of veterans had sued the military contractor KBR, Inc. for running huge burn pits, which burned tires and medical waste, near to military installations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those burn pits created clouds of toxic smoke.
The case was initially heard by a U.S. district court and then by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Both of the courts ruled in favor of KBR, Inc., and now the Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by the group, leaving hundreds of veterans seriously sick but without compensation. The rulings reasoned that KBR, Inc. was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. military when it ran the burn pits, and consequently cannot be held responsible.
“I returned home from war to face a health care system that failed me and an employer too afraid to understand an uncommon war injury resulting in termination of my law enforcement career,” said Leroy Torres, who served in the Army Reserve for 23 years and came back from Iraq with a serious lung disease. “[I’m] subsequently facing foreclosure, while at the same time receiving VA denial letters for compensation for illnesses still not recognized by VA.”
Torres created a group called Burn Pits 360 that represented veterans who were contaminated by KBR’s burn pits. After years of lobbying, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was forced to acknowledge some of their demands and created a registry for those affected. As of now, there are more than 160,000 names on that list.
The connections to Vietnam-era Agent Orange exposure are obvious to many. A powerful defoliant that was sprayed over large swaths of jungle to create landing zones, Agent Orange also caused cancer, among other side effects, in those who were exposed to it. For almost four decades, the VA refused to compensate veterans who developed an illness because of their exposure, claiming the illnesses weren’t linked to their time in uniform. It was only in 2010 that the VA finally conceded and began issuing compensation. But for many veterans, it was already too late.
“The real parallel with Agent Orange is it seems like we’re fighting the government to recognize that this exists,” said Paul Rieckhoff, a veteran who founded and now serves as executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization. “There are Vietnam vets right now still fighting for Agent Orange presumption. We don’t want to be in the same spot 40 years from now fighting for recognition and health care support for burn pits.”
James Ledlie, an Army veteran and lawyer for the plaintiffs, said, “Our veterans deserve better. There’s no doubt that they were exposed to burn pits run by civilian contractors, and it’s unfortunate that they didn’t have their day in court to have their claims truly adjudicated on the merits.”
These veterans are determined to seek justice and will turn to Congress in a last-ditch attempt to receive it.