Julio Ojeda-Zapata and Kristi Belcamino
Melissa Gillett recalls the sickly sweet, nearly vomit-inducing smell during her runs around Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where she served as a member of the Minnesota National Guard.
The revolting odor emanated from a big “burn pit,” one of many the U.S. military has used over the years in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places to dispose of trash, chemicals and more.
Gillett did her best to avoid the burn pit’s smoke, steering clear if she couldn’t peer through it, but she said she breathed it in pretty much nonstop during her six-month tour of duty in late 2009 and early 2010, she said.
And now the 29-year-old Fargo, N.D. woman is sick, very sick.
Gillett’s story, and that of many other veterans who have served near the burn pits, is now at the heart of an effort to better help those believed to be suffering health problems as a direct result.
Gillett appeared Sunday alongside U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the American Lung Association in St. Paul to promote a bill called the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act.
The legislation, which Klobuchar introduced last month, would create a “center of excellence” within the Department of Veterans Affairs to further “prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits.”
Because these veterans “were on the front lines” for Americans, the government has to make sure it is on the front lines for them when they return home, Klobuchar said Sunday.
“There was no waiting line for our men and women in uniform when they raised their right hands and volunteered to serve,” she said in a statement. “There should be no waiting line when they return home and need our help getting the care they’ve earned.”
The senator compared the effects of burn pits to those of the infamous Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam, noting that it took the government years to properly help veterans affected by that chemical. She wants to make sure that doesn’t happen with burn-pit smoke.
One veteran who had health issues stemming from the burn pits told Klobuchar, “This is my generation’s version of Agent Orange,” she said.
Legislation similar to Klobuchar’s bill has been introduced in the past, to little avail.
Dr. Dave Hamlar, an ear, nose and throat doctor at the University of Minnesota, has treated veterans exposed to the burn-pit smoke. Hamlar, a commissioned officer in the Minnesota Air National Guard who has achieved the rank of brigadier general, was once stationed in Kuwait.
During Sunday’s press conference, he described what it was like to be on a base with a burn pit, saying these bases always had a strong stench that smelled like jet fuel, noting that if you could smell it, you were breathing it in.
Burn pits were often as large as two acres and visible from everywhere on base, he said. At night, the area would have a yellowish glow and if someone was nearby, they could even feel the heat. If whatever was burning caused a mini-explosion, small pieces sometimes become airborne.
How many U.S. military personnel have been exposed to such burn-pit smoke is unclear, but more than 65,000 veterans and active-duty personnel have completed a questionnaire as part of the Veteran Affairs Department’s Airborne Hazards and Open Pit Registry.
Those eligible to participate in the registry are serving or have served during U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait along with, under some circumstances, Djibouti, Africa and the “Southwest Asia theater of operations.”
KBR, a military contractor that operated many of the burn pits, has faced a flurry of lawsuits from veterans and their families. The company has fought back, claiming it operated legitimately at the military’s direction, and casting doubt on the veterans’ health claims.
An Institute of Medicine study sponsored by the Veterans Affairs Department concluded in 2011 that such health claims cannot be verified because of insufficient data and the presence of pollution from other sources in the burn pits’ peripheries.
Gillett’s superiors, though, appeared uneasy about personnel who went home after serving at smoke-infested Bagram Airbase. She said she was told to sign a legal form clearing the military of potential liability as she prepared to head stateside.
“I refused,” she recalled. She said her superiors insisted, telling she could not go home if she did not sign. “I still refused,” and the brass relented after a day or two.
Gillett said she suffered from continual respiratory problems at the base — and those medical issues have endured to this day.
Gillett, who helped operate power gear and set up equipment to assist fighter pilots making emergency landings, said she struggled with near-constant congestion that led to sinusitis and ear infections.
An avid runner, she participated in 5K and 20K races despite the poor air conditions, which coated perimeter fencing grotesquely with residue. She made do with over-the-counter allergy meds while worrying continually about the smoke’s potential effects.
“It blew over me constantly,” she said. “I was breathing it even when I was sleeping.”
Her health problems came to a head soon after her return to the United States, when she found herself unable to pass a required fitness test in order to stay in the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing, part of the U.S. Air National Guard.
Gillett, a daughter of a military chaplain, and one who loved to serve out of patriotic fervor, was crestfallen to be forced out of her armed-forces career — but she figured she’d return once she got her health issues under control.
She never did. She was diagnosed with asthma, a condition disqualifying her from military service. She later began suffering from sleep apnea. Her adenoids had to be removed because they were so swollen.
She still coughs constantly, which is problematic since she works in telesales.
Gillett was dismayed upon visiting Minnehaha Falls with her three young daughters earlier this week when she couldn’t keep up with the tots as they clambered and climbed.
“It’s hard for me,” she said. “I can’t breath and I start gasping. It is disappointing.”
Gillett said she is generally satisfied with the medical care she’s received from the Veteran’s Administration Department in Fargo, but she said she deals with a lot of red tape.
Being unable to indisputably connect her health issues to fire-pit exposure in Afghanistan causes her no end of frustration. This is difficult in part because she filed no formal medical claim during her service, but only years later.
This would be easier, she said, if she had been hit with shrapnel.
She desperately misses the military.“It was a huge part of my life,” Gillett said. “I identified as being an airman, and that was taken away. I feel like I lost my family. That was my life in uniform, and I was proud of it.”