On April 30, 2019, CCK’s Kerry Baker presented at the Burn Pits Congressional Briefing in Washington, D.C. regarding VA disability compensation for claims related to burn pit exposure.
About the Burn Pits Congressional Briefing
The Burn Pits Congressional Briefing, “Toxic Wounds of War: The Way Ahead, Medical Monitoring, Treatment, Benefits, and Compensation”, took place in the Congressional Auditorium of the Capitol Visitor Center located in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the briefing was to educate members of Congress, staffers, and community stakeholders on the issues surrounding burn pits and to highlight effective legislative efforts in need of congressional support. The Briefing began with opening remarks from members of Congress including Senator Tom Udall, Congressman Raul Ruiz, and Congressman Joaquin Castro. Each member of Congress expressed concern over the present state of affairs for veterans experiencing or at risk for experiencing health problems caused by exposure to toxic burn pits insofar as many injured veterans are left without the healthcare and benefits needed following exposure. The representatives indicated that legislative solutions requiring VA to provide comprehensive healthcare and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits are necessary. The Briefing also involved presentations from panelists who shared their medical research and legal expertise regarding burn pit exposure, effects on veterans’ health, and access to VA benefits.
What Are Burn Pits?
Burn pits were large areas of land in which the United States military and its contractors burned waste generated by military bases. Open air burn pits were used throughout the majority of all operations in Iraq and Afghanistan between approximately 2001 and 2010. However, some bases are still utilizing burn pits today. There is no list detailing exactly which bases operated burn pits; however, we do know that there was a burn pit at nearly every forward operating base in Iraq and Afghanistan during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Due to the burn pits’ size and proximity to military bases, it is likely that many veterans stationed at these bases were exposed to the toxic smoke billowing from the fires. The largest burn pit was located at Joint Base Balad, spanning over 25 acres of land and burning up to several hundred tons of waste per day.
What Was Burned?
Essentially all waste generated from military bases was disposed of in the burn pits. Some of the materials burned included, but were not limited to: plastics; medical and human waste; chemicals, such as paints and solvents; rubber; metal, and aluminum cans; weapons and munitions; Styrofoam; tires; batteries; and pesticides. Military personnel and contractors used jet fuel to speed the burning of these materials, adding to the harmful chemicals emitted. Air samples collected at Joint Base Balad in Iraq have revealed the presence of particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and toxic organic halogenated dioxins and furans. Approximately one-half to two-thirds of the individual chemicals found in burn pit smoke are known human carcinogens. There are a wide range of disabilities potentially associated with burn pit exposure, including respiratory disabilities such as constrictive bronchiolitis, autoimmune disorders, and various cancers. Nonetheless, VA has not established a presumption of service connection for veterans with burn pit exposure who later develop these illnesses.
About Kerry Baker
Among the presenters at the Briefing was Kerry Baker, a service-connected, combat-disabled veteran of the United States Marine Corps in which he served from 1987 to 1998. He was deployed all over the world, including conflicts in Panama and Somalia, as well as the Persian Gulf War in which he served in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Kerry currently works at CCK as a non-attorney VA appellate practitioner representing disabled veterans and their dependents before the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Immediately prior to joining CCK, Kerry worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs as the Chief of Legislative and Policy Staff in the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Compensation Service. As such, Kerry managed all legislative issues between the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees and VA’s Compensation Service. As an expert in the field of toxic exposures, he has also managed special projects related to disability benefit programs, including Agent Orange-related issues and other environmental hazards, such as those from the Gulf War and Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.
Kerry Baker’s Presentation: Burn Pit Exposure and VA Compensation
In his presentation, Kerry provided an overview of the way VA adjudicates veteran’s claims for service-connected compensation based on exposure to burn pits. Specifically, VA requires veterans to prove that their current, diagnosed condition is related to their exposure to burn pits during service. This usually requires a positive medical nexus opinion. However, Kerry noted that this nexus (i.e. link) is often difficult to establish as veterans receive unfavorable medical opinions from VA examiners who are not qualified to opine on complex exposure issues. Many VA examination reports do not even acknowledge a veteran’s claim as related to burn pit exposure, much less include any analysis on the effects of the chemicals produced in relation to the medical conditions at hand. While VA will acknowledge a veteran’s diagnosis, it typically fails to recognize that it is related to his or her exposure. As a result, countless veterans are being denied the healthcare and compensation to which they are rightfully entitled. As a cost-neutral solution, Kerry proposed that at the very least, VA commits to training its personnel effectively such that they evaluate medical conditions as related to burn pit exposure and adjudicate such matters according to the applicable regulations.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Kerry emphasized that he is honored and privileged to work with CCK in representing numerous veterans and their family members affected by exposure to burn pits.