Health Care

So far, 661 Vermonters have signed up for a national registry for burn pit effects

June Heston, the widow of Brig. Gen. Michael Heston
June Heston, the widow of Brig. Gen. Michael Heston, speaks in favor of creating a registry of Vermont soldiers who were exposed to burn pits while serving overseas while appearing before the Senate Government Operations Committee at the Statehouse in 2019. Gen. Heston died from cancer in November 2018. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In the last nine months, 93 Vermonters have joined the Veterans Affairs open burn pit registry, bringing to 661 the number of people who had documented exposure to airborne toxins while they served in the military.

The national registry is for people subjected to airborne hazards, including breathing in the smoke from burn pits — a common method of U.S. military garbage disposal in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Toxic chemicals in the burn pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs.

Most people recover quickly, but others do not.

Vermont is among the 10 states and U.S. territories with the fewest people on the national registry. The registry was established in June 2014; so far, 209,097 veterans and service members have documented their exposure to airborne toxins.

More than a year ago, Gov. Phil Scott signed a law calling for an educational campaign about the dangers of burn pits and makes enrollment in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry opt-out instead of opt-in. About 10,000 Vermont veterans served overseas over the last two decades; the state wants them to sign up for the national registry that tracks the symptoms of veterans who were exposed to burn pits.

“It’s slow but we continue to make progress,” Bob Burke, director of the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs, told lawmakers Thursday about signing up Vermont veterans for the registry.

Jessa Barnard, executive director of the Vermont Medical Society, told the Senate Government Operations Committee that the coronavirus pandemic may have stopped some health care providers from distributing educational materials about the registry. 

“The timing might be better as we move into the fall,” Barnard said. “We could probably put another reminder out there in the next month or so.”

However, burn pits have had an impact on Vermont veterans.

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On Aug. 21, Deborah Susan Beckett, longtime Williston town clerk who served in the Army National Guard member, died of cancer caused by exposure to burn pits, according to her obituary. While in the Guard, she served two tours in the Middle East.

And last year’s push for a state law recognizing the health effects of burn pit exposure was headed by June Heston, whose husband — Brig. General Mike Heston, a Vermont National Guard commander and recipient of two Bronze Stars — died of pancreatic cancer in 2018.

Since the legislative success in Vermont, Heston has been pushing for federal legislation.

On Thursday, Heston said she’s glad the U.S. Senate has taken up proposals that she and others have worked on.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has sponsored S. 4393, the Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act of 2020, and S. 2950. the Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Recognition Act of 2019. There is also HR1381, the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act, which is also awaiting action in the Senate.

However, while awareness has been raised about burn pit exposure in recent years, the VA has approved only a fraction of compensation claims.

Between 2007 and 2019, more than 11,500 disability compensation claims were filed for medical conditions related to burn pit exposure; about 2,300 were granted. Most of the denials were for a “lack of evidence” that the illness was service-related, according to The New York Times

Wesley Black, a Vermont veteran who testified in favor of the Vermont law in 2019, is now involved in a $17.5 million medical malpractice lawsuit against the White River Junction VA Medical Center for misdiagnosing colon cancer caused by exposure to burn pit fumes.

The federal government has asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that Black’s complaint was filed a year too late, the Valley News reported.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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