Contractors Sickened By Military Burn Pits Left to Fend for Themselves


It's known as "the new Agent Orange."

Thousands of soldiers have fallen gravely ill or even died from exposure to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they are not the only ones who have gotten sick. Civilian workers and private contractors are also suffering maladies including cancer, respiratory problems and blood disorders and, like military victims, they say they are being ignored.

But private employees often don't even have the Veterans Administration to lean on.

"Who's responsible for us? Who's going to start taking care of us?" asked Bobby Elesky, 52, a vet-turned-private contractor who worked out of Kandahar during the war in Afghanistan.

Elesky, who served in the military in the 1980s, said many vets like him were recruited as private contractors to assist in Afghanistan.

"We were all rounded up as vets from the [Department of Defense] because we were the best soldiers," he said. "They asked us if we wanted to go, and shipped us to Afghanistan."

Elesky worked on vehicle maintenance and the military base where he was stationed contained a burn pit he says was the length of "two to three football fields." He adds that it was filled with various sorts of waste until it was level enough to walk across and the fumes from the burn pit combined with the base’s sewage pit, created a noxious environment to work in.

"There were times when the air quality was so bad that you would just drop to your knees and throw up," he said. "We made jokes at the time because we had no idea how serious it was.’

But Elesky says he found out when he returned home in 2005 and was told during a checkup that he had nearly 20 parasites in his body. More than a decade after his return, Elskey has suffered from myriad health issues, including plasmacytoma -- a condition where rare tumors attack soft tissue in the nasal cavity or bone marrow. He is grateful for the treatment he has received from the VA, but said the bureaucracy was difficult to deal with.

Elesky said he was initially denied enrollment into the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs' Burn Pit Registry -- which was created to research and examine the potential threats from burn pit exposure.

"I'm a vet, but I’m not, according to them," he said. "Because I was there as a contractor, I wasn't allowed to sign up for the registry, which is b.s. to me. They already have all the data they need."

"They should be studying the cases of all the contractors. We were out at all the big bases," he added.

During the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the burn pit method was adopted originally as a temporary measure to get rid of waste and garbage generated on bases. Everything was incinerated in the pits, say soldiers, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. The items were often set ablaze with jet fuel as the accelerant.

Nearly 64,000 active service members and retirees have put their names on the Burn Pit Registry, but documenting their plight doesn't guarantee coverage.

"It's a failed registry. It doesn’t work. It could take 20-30 years for someone to get assistance," Joseph Hickman, author of the 2016 book "The Burn Pits: the Poisoning of America's Soldiers," told in April. "It's not fair. They need help now."

Last Thursday, 700 veterans sent a letter to President Obama through advocacy group Burn Pits 360, urging government and the public to address their health issues caused by burn pit exposure.

"We write because these veterans are seriously ill, dying or have passed away, and more must be done," the group wrote in the letter. "Many of us went to war able to run marathons, but now our health has deteriorated so much that we cannot hold down steady jobs.

"We are misdiagnosed. We are not getting the medical care we urgently need. We need you to act in this, your final year in office."

The Department of Veterans Affairs claims on its website for the registry that there is not enough proof of burn pits permanently affecting the health of those exposed.

"At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits. VA continues to study the health of deployed veterans," reads a line from the site. "Veterans who were closer to burn pit smoke or exposed for longer periods may be at greater risk. Health effects depend on a number of other factors, such as the kind of waste being burned and wind direction. Most of the irritation is temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone."

But for many soldiers and civilians alike, the issues were not temporary.

Contractors -- many of whom are also veterans like Elesky -- are not afforded the luxury of registering with the VA due to a technicality and, for some, insurance companies for the private organizations that hired them, are not assisting with medical bills.

"The VA will never be obligated to provide me with benefits and that’s OK," Veronica Landry, 44, a veteran and former contractor from Colorado Springs who worked for Kellogg Brown & Root in Iraq, said to "My concern is that the insurance company for KBR pays for the claims."

"I’m not holding my breath. I don't think they will respond," she added, regarding her recent request.

Landry was sent to Iraq in 2004 by KBR and worked as a recreational and morale specialist at Mosul Air Force Base. "It's ironic that I worked for the company that poisoned us."

Officials for Kellogg, Brown and Root said in a statement provided to that the burn pits the company operated were safe.

"At the limited number of bases where KBR operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military," reads the written statement. "KBR complies with all applicable laws and contractual obligations, which includes providing the federally mandated and specified insurance coverage required for employees working overseas supporting the U.S. government." 

Landry was sent home early for PTSD after the base was attacked. Making matters worse, she also developed problems with her lungs and other ailments, like migraines, chills, and dangerously low blood pressure, leading her to be in and out of hospitals over the past 10 years.

"It’s gotten to the point where I can feel it coming on," she said. "I pack my bags as if I'm going into labor, because I know I have to go to the hospital."

This single mother of three says it’s hard, but she has kept her health in check with a low-inflammation diet to help stave off flare-ups, but she wishes that more would be done to help the civilians who were exposed to burn pits.

"There needs to be another registry for contractors and civilian workers who got sick," Landry said. "It should be handled by the Department of Labor."

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at@perrych

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