Veteran registry shows rampant problem with burn pit smoke exposure | KOB 4
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Veteran registry shows rampant problem with burn pit smoke exposure

Colton Shone
June 12, 2019 06:24 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - An Albuquerque man says thousands of men and women who served overseas are coming home with life-threatening illnesses due to exposure to smoke from burn pits, and he's one of them.

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A federal Veterans Affairs registry shows just how rampant this problem is with over a hundred thousand vets saying they've been exposed.

Now, the efforts to help those vets could be in jeopardy.

"I actually did two tours in Iraq back in 2004 and back in 2007 and 2008," said retired Master Sgt. Jessey Baca. 

Baca was in the New Mexico Air National Guard and did maintenance on F-16s. While there, he was exposed to smoke coming from burn pits that were used to get rid of waste.

"Think of a huge black fire. The smoke was 24 hours a day. It would go over the housing area where we lived and worked, and that's what you breathed every day. Anything from paper, to vehicles, to body parts. There was a main hospital at that base, so a lot of the medical waste was thrown into there," he said.

When Baca came home, he noticed his health was on the decline.

"It started with a cough that just didn't go away," he said.

After several doctor visits, Baca was diagnosed with chemically-induced asthma. He was referred to a specialist who noticed an increase in veterans exposed to burn pits seeking treatment.

Baca eventually spearheaded the effort to launch a burn pit registry for veterans who believe they got sick from exposure to burn pits. U.S. Senator Tom Udall helped push it through Congress in 2013.

"We have some great veterans in New Mexico that were very brave and fought and served, and they should be protected if they served in those areas where the toxic fumes going into their lungs," said Udall.

According to the Veterans Affairs Administration, between June 2014 and December 2018 almost 165,000 veterans and service members documented their exposure in the registry.

Looking at state-by-state data, New Mexico had more than 1,500 veterans registered.

Here's the concern: The VA's proposed budget see's $17 million less for medical research. Senator Udall believes that will in turn have a negative impact on money set aside for burn pit research. 

"The big benefit first of all is that your name is known by the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs and if any health care impacts come out it shows that you have stepped forward on that. The second thing is there's going to be research with regard to veterans who were exposed to these toxic fumes from these burn pits," said Udall.

According to the VA, right now a decades-long study on burn pit exposure is underway as well as two others looking at respiratory health.

Senator Udall and advocacy groups are now trying to get $5 million specifically for burn pit research. But what about Senator Udall's upcoming retirement? Baca is worried about that, too.

"That is a big fear because with Sen. Udall, his seniority and his perseverance and his drive have made this happen, hopefully whoever steps into his shoes will follow suit," said Baca.

Sen. Udall said he will always be a part of this fight even if he's not in Congress.

Udall and Baca's end goal is to prove that illnesses from burn pits are service-connected so veterans can be compensated with service connected disability.

Credits

Colton Shone

Copyright 2019 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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