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Julie Tomáška knew that living in the shadow of a burning waste dump the size of football field couldn’t be good for her.

How could she not?

“No matter where we were, no matter how the wind shifted, we were smelling and kind of breathing in the smoke and the soot from these burn pits … 24 hours a day,” she said.

The burn pit was the inescapable backdrop to life on the Balad air base in Iraq for Staff Sergeant Tomáška and her colleagues from the Minnesota Air National Guard during her two tours of duty in 2005 and 2007.

The pits were used by the US military across Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of pretty much anything – styrofoam plates from the canteen, electronics, chemicals, classified materials, contraband and even bombed-out vehicles.

When the flames died down, jet fuel was used as accelerant.

Burn pit in Iraq with a sign saying 'no dumping'.
A burn pit near the Balad air base.(Supplied: Julie Tomáška)

“It permeates everything and there’s a layer of soot on everything,” Julie Tomáška said.

At the time, Sergeant Tomáška and her colleagues deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom would joke about it.

“You sort of have a morbid sense of humour in a situation like that,” the now 42-year-old said.

“We sort of stepped back and said, ‘Well, this is really going to come back to bite us.'”

Lungs left ‘scarred’ and ‘rigid’ 

Years after she returned home to Minnesota, the prophecy came true when Julie Tomáška was diagnosed with deployment-related lung disease.

Specifically, she’s been told she has a range of conditions, including constrictive bronchiolitis, chronic pleuritis, and pleural fibrosis.

Woman wearing a blue shirt, standing behind a counter with numerous medications in front of her.
Almost a decade after her return to the US, Julie was diagnosed with deployment-related lung disease.(ABC News: Bradley McLennan)

“It basically means that my lungs, the airways, are scarred. The small airways are very scarred, and rigid, so I can’t get a full breath,” she said.

“I’ve had to learn just to live life very slowly, and sort of take things at a slower pace, and realise that if I overdo one day, I’ll pay for it for three.”

Julie Tomáška was able to navigate what she says is a complex system to get some health benefits from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Thousands of others, who suspect illnesses ranging from respiratory conditions to cancer are linked to their deployments in the 9/11 wars as well as the first Iraq war, are still going through the process of diagnosis.

Man throwing rubbish into a burn pit.
Trash being disposed at a burn pit in Afghanistan in 2013. (US Department of Defense/Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz)

“I can see why a lot of veterans just stop. You know, they stopped pushing it because it’s overwhelming,” she said. 

“It takes an insurmountable amount of time. I’ve gone through every test three times, practically.”

Claims for benefits rejected

The Department of Veterans Affairs set up a burn pits registry in 2014 to help “better understand the potential health effects of burn pits and other exposures”.

To date more than 200,000 people have registered, but the majority of burn pit-related benefits claims submitted so far have been rejected.

The department recently announced that any vets exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan to burn pits and subsequently diagnosed with one of three respiratory conditions – asthma, sinusitis, or rhinitis – will automatically get disability benefits.

But advocates say many more illnesses should be added to that list.

Equipment manager tossing uniform items into a burn pit.
Uniforms were among the items burned at Balad, to make sure they couldn’t be used by insurgents.(US Department of Defense/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter)

The department says it is actively studying the impacts of airborne hazards like burn pits and other military environmental exposure, but advocates want action now.

Their campaign has the support of comedian Jon Stewart, who has previously spearheaded an emotionally-charged campaign for health care for 9/11 first responders exposed to cancer-causing toxins in the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Now, he’s lobbying Congress on the burn pits issue. 

“If you can’t take care of the people who protect the country and take care of you … I believe the phrase would be ‘yikes’,” Stewart said at a recent press conference.

Burn pit stench was ‘out of control’

Julie Tomáška continues to campaign, in part because of her own health troubles, but also because she’s making good on a promise to a friend. 

Two women in military uniform in Iraq.
Julie (right) and Aime in Balad, 2007.(Supplied: Julie Tomáška)

Her close colleague Aime Muller, who was on the same Iraq deployments, died of pancreatic cancer in 2017 at the age of 36.

Aime Muller left behind a husband, two young children and a teenage daughter.

“When you hear those two words, ‘pancreatic cancer’, most people know that it’s kind of a death sentence,” her husband Brian said.

“She did all the things she was supposed to do: all the chemo, the cocktail, three different chemo regimens together.

“She didn’t even think twice and she tried to fight, for our kids, for our family. But nine months later she was gone.”

In a haunting entry in a journal she kept for her young daughter, Aime Muller wrote of her concerns about working and sleeping next to the burn pits.

Diary entry talking about burn pits.
Aime Muller wrote about the burn pits in a journal she kept.(ABC News: Bradley McLennan)

“There is a huge garbage pit on the perimeter of the base (inside)”, she wrote in an entry dated May 25, 2005.

“They continuously burn plastics, rubber, you name it and the stench is OUT OF CONTROL.

Aime Muller’s cancer was never officially linked to burn pit exposure, but her family is convinced that’s what killed her.

Father sitting with three children on a couch.
Aime Muller left behind a husband, a teenage daughter and two young children. (ABC News: Bradley McLennan)

“What they did was wrong, especially right next to a base,” Brian Muller said.

“They could have figured out many other alternatives to make it safer for our troops. Instead, they put them in harm’s way. That was worse than the war itself.”

Links to cancer plausible 

Dr Cecile Rose has been studying the impacts of burn pits and other deployment-related toxins for the past decade, with some of the work funded by the US Department of Defense.

The pulmonologist at the National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado has seen around 300 returned vets who have a range of deployment-related conditions, including rhinitis, sinusitis, emphysema, asthma and bronchitis.

Dr Rose believes that is probably just “the tip of the iceberg”.

Bulldozer in a burn pit.
Thousands of veterans have come down with illnesses they link to their exposure to toxins from the massive waste sites in Iraq and Afghanistan.(US Department of Defense/28th Public Affairs Detachment)

“You have a generally healthy, fit, young adult population, who then come back with often disabling respiratory symptoms, including shortness of breath, that prohibit them from passing the fitness requirements of the military, and that also affect their quality of life,” Dr Rose said. 

She said there was not yet any longitudinal data on other conditions, including cancer.

But she said it was possible there were links.

“It certainly is plausible that some cancers may be linked to exposures to things like burn pit combustion products, because we know that there are carcinogens in the smoke,” she said. 

President Joe Biden has frequently linked the death of his son Beau in 2015 to his exposure to burn pits in Iraq.

Joe Biden and his son Beau on stage.
Joe Biden with his son Beau, who was deployed to Iraq in 2008-9.(Reuters: Chris Wattie)

Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, served as a major in the Delaware Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2008-9.

Addressing service members in May this year, the President said his son went to Iraq “as an incredibly healthy, young man and came back with a severe brain tumour because his hooch was just downwind from those burn pits”.

The President’s personal involvement is one reason advocates are hopeful Congress will soon pass legislation which will see vets who served in the vicinity of burn pits automatically granted access to health care and disability benefits if they fall ill.

“I think it’s important that we don’t allow burn pits to become the Agent Orange for this generation,” said Aleks Morosky, an Iraq vet turned lobbyist with the Wounded Warrior Project, which advocates for veterans.

Man wearing a suit, sitting outside.
Aleks Morosky says “the time to act is now”.(ABC News: Bradley McLennan)

An estimated 3.5 million US service members were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and in some of the surrounding areas during the wars which followed the September 11 attacks.

“Use of burn pits, toxic exposure, exposure to desert sands and other environmental hazards was so widespread that really, any single one of them could be at risk, and could develop a condition at some point along the way,” Mr Morosky said.

If the potential costs for covering those sound astronomical, it doesn’t worry Aleks Morosky.

“War is expensive,” he said.

“The time to act is now.”

The sentiment is echoed by Julie Tomáška.

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