The Latest You Need to Know About Burn Pit Exposures, and the Veteran-Led Research Team Pushing for Change and Saving Lives!
Veteran(s) and Registered Nurses Chelsey Poisson and LtCol. Sheri Boucher give zero fucks. They do not give a fuck that standing up for what they know is right could theoretically endanger their military careers and VA jobs. They don’t give a fuck if the team at the HunterSeven Foundation has to take on the VA top brass. They have got no problem taking the fight to Washington, either, as they have been winning over Congress and the Senate one representative at a time. In fact, they are already doing it—and succeeding, gaining overwhelming support along the way.
Here’s what these veteran nurses do give a fuck about. In the 17-year period spanning October 2001 and 2018, approximately 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits. By the end of that same time frame, however, only about 4% of them had signed on to the VA burn pit registry—roughly around 160,000 people. They especially give a whole lot of fucks that these numbers just…keep…getting…smaller. Only 9,000 of those registered ever filed VA claims for burn pit exposures—and only 2,000 of those claims were approved.
They give a fuck that, at the same time, their veteran brothers and sisters just seem to keep getting sicker. That young people are leaving for war healthy and coming back with incredibly rare cancers that are hardly ever seen in the rest of the population. That SGM Robert J. Bowman, a.k.a. callsign “HUNTER 7,” left behind a wife (Coleen) and four daughters when he died in January 2013 from an extremely rare form of cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) related to exposures to toxins during his two deployments to Mosul, Iraq and Baghdad. That Poissons’ own fiancé Kyle who served with SGM Bowman in Iraq is currently fighting “idiopathic” symptoms related to toxic exposures.
They give a fuck that more than a third of the men who served with both Rob and Kyle in Iraq have conditions with unknown origins: chronic bronchitis, skin conditions, low testosterone, gastrointestinal issues, and more. They give a fuck that their sisters are suffering, too: many of the women who’ve served have been noted to have infertility issues and children born with heart defects, similar trends that have been tragically mirrored in Iraqi women, as well.
If you were there, you don’t need to be told what a burn pit is, and you certainly don’t need to have done more than smell its black smoke to be convinced that it was toxic. But for those who require convincing—and where the allocation of federal funding and resources are concerned, you can bet that convincing is required—the statistics outline a clear and serious problem.
Estimates cited by Poisson, Boucher and the HunterSeven Foundation team—a veteran-founded, medical research organization created to push for toxic exposures accountability—researchers at Villanova Law determined place the amount of trash generated by a single soldier in a single day in a combat zone at 10 lbs. That amounts to approximately 140 tons of trash per day burned on average at a place like Joint-Base Balad, which had one of the largest burn pits in Iraq. At the height of the GWOT in 2007, the number peaked at 240 tons of trash burned per day.
And not just trash, but full-on industrial refuse: things like plastics, Styrofoam, paints, solvents, paint thinners, pesticides, rubber, chemically-treated uniforms. Add to this list ingredients far more sinister; the military base in Balad, which would become the location of the U.S.’ largest burn pit, had prior to the American occupation been home to caches of chemical weapons which had been damaged in bombings and buried underground, providing opportunity for their contents to leach into the sand. When this earth was turned over to create the burn pits, researchers have theorized that elements of Mustard Gas, Sarin, Tabun, and Depleted Uranium were also added into the mix. This toxic soup was ignited with diesel fuel, spewing toxins into the atmosphere that would settle everywhere in fine soot and miniscule particulate matter, mingling with sand and making its way into everything from the air breathed to water ingested. Unquantified amounts of known carcinogens like benzene and the same dioxins found in the Vietnam War herbicide Agent Orange by these means made their way into servicemembers’ bodies; containing similar herbicide agents such as TCDD, which contains dioxins and phenols as well.
The good news, if there is any, is that the research on the toxicity of these exposures is solid and convincing—and where there is good science, there is the potential for funding. What began as a nursing honors research project (testing and finding overwhelming support for the hypothesis that “Iraq War Veterans exhibited a decrease in overall physical fitness test scores and a significant increase in medical symptoms post-deployment”) rapidly evolved into a much larger push for education, awareness, and accountability. Together with the HunterSeven research team (comprised of Poisson, BSN-RN, EMT-P, nursing professors and clinical researchers Dr. Sylvia Ross, Ph.D., CNM-RN, USAF Flight Nurse Lt. Col. Sheri Boucher, MSN-RN and approximately five other combat veterans with advanced degrees in the medical arena), the focus has now become creating legislation that will ensure all veterans receive proper medical screening and treatments regardless of their knowledge or lack-there-of of their potential exposures to toxins while deployed to the Middle East. The team is the only non-profit organization comprised of both military combat veterans and healthcare providers; the team makes it a stated point that compensation and pension is not the end-state-goal, stating “we can do more as healthcare providers, we can be more proactive and responsible in our patient care… compensation won’t do a veteran good if they are terminally ill – we need to work on a more proactive, preventive approach in various stages.”
VA leadership and political figures in Washington have taken notice, and the HunterSeven mission has gained the endorsement of such notable figures as U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, Veteran Affairs Representative for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Mass. Sen. Richard Ross, U.S. Mass. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Office of Veterans Affairs and most notable in the area of toxic exposures is Army Veteran and Congressman Brian Mast of Florida. All of the above have pledged their full support.
Still, much remains to be done. The HunterSeven team is still working to obtain bipartisan sponsorship on a piece of legislation they determined using their years of academic research and medically-based studies about toxic exposures. The stated objectives of this legislation:
- Educate—Healthcare providers on both a civilian and VA setting; those deploying and returning veterans;
- Primary—Using educational awareness, having those deploying/deployed briefed on strategies to minimize exposures;
- Secondary—Returning service members screened for toxic exposure-related symptoms under AR40-501(8-23)(h) using form(s) SF-600, DD-2697 and DA-7349; prepare influx of this specific veteran cohort in the civilian medical facilities by utilizing evidence-based protocols and tools to provide insight conditions extinct in the United States but are epidemic in other third-world combat zones;
- Tertiary—Chronic treatments; providing medical care after the disease progression (i.e. Chemotherapy, transplants, end-of-life care, etc.).
Because their medically-supported research is groundbreaking and legislation is still pending sponsorship, at this point it is critical that individual veterans take initiative in advocating for their own care. For this reason, education is paramount. Poisson and Boucher have created a a screening program for use by civilian intake nurses that utilizes evidence-based data to help identify at-risk veterans. Still, self-advocacy is never a bad plan. The continued research on the illnesses caused by / correlated with toxic exposures while deployed are ongoing, and regular updates are provided by HunterSeven on their educational website. For any veteran experiencing inexplicable symptoms, a good place to begin is here with HunterSeven’s list of cancers linked to OIF/OEF burn pit exposures.
Next, regardless if you believe you have not been exposed, add yourself to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which is available to OEF/OIF/OND/OFS Veterans and Servicemembers who have deployed to the Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after August 2, 1990, as well as those who have deployed to Afghanistan or Djibouti after September 11, 2001. The VA is seeking to compile a database of information on servicemembers exposed to burn pits, and this may help you and other veterans exposed to obtain much needed medical coverage in the future.
Finally, show your support for the legislation that can make a difference on the federal level. You can call or write congress to support a bill that the veterans and healthcare providers at the HunterSeven Foundation support including H.R. 663: “Burn Pits Accountability Act” (Rep. Gabbard, HI) and Senate bipartisan bill S.191: Burn Pits Accountability Act” (Sen. Klobuchar, MN), which would require Department of Defense evaluations on each veteran to determine if they have been exposed by methods of periodic health assessments, physical exams conducted immediately prior to separation from active duty and deployment assessments. The team also suggests supporting H.R. 1381: “Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act” (Rep. Ruiz, CA) and bipartisan bill S.554 (Sen. Udall, NM) which would allow certain individuals to update the vital statistics (i.e. cause of death) for veterans previously-registered on the VA Burn Pit Registry.
*Please note that the research team tactfully opposes H.R. 1001: “Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act” (Rep. Castro, TX) in which family members could complete the entire registry on behalf of a deceased veteran, for the primary reason that deviating in any way from accurate, reliable, first-hand validated information would be detrimental to the already deficient registry.
The HunterSeven team will be presenting in Washington D.C. on the 25th of April with members of congress, veterans, healthcare providers and members of veteran advocacy groups to discuss toxic exposures overall, their impact on health, and concurrent solutions moving forward. While in Washington, the team will meet with directors and researchers from TAPS.org (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) to discuss proposed legislation moving forward on a healthcare level. Also attending this meeting? TAPS Senior Toxic Exposure Loss Director Mrs. Coleen Bowman, a.k.a. “Mrs. HUNTER 7.”