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How the US is failing female veterans suffering illness from toxic burn pits

Published by Olivia Empson

(Samuel D Corum/US Military/AFP/Getty Images)

Lacy Hollings watched the billowing black smoke rise a hundred feet from her door and sensed a disaster waiting to happen. It was 2006, and she had been deployed to the Ghazi province in Afghanistan as an interrogator and linguist with the United States army. Every day, the dark cloud lingered, stinging her eyes, charring her lungs, and making it difficult to breathe.

What Hollings was seeing was a burn pit, an area roughly the size of a basketball court where all the waste from the base – human sewage, food, tires and metal – was discarded, doused in fuel, and then set on fire with a match. It had a pungently chemical smell and would sizzle and crackle.

The smoke lingered for months, making Hollings’s one-mile runs around the base increasingly unpleasant. She knew there was no way she could live so close to the burn pit and not go home sick, referring to it among friends as “a ticking timebomb”. Dark soot would spray into her tissue whenever she blew her nose, an ominous sign that the smoke had entered her body. And indeed, only a year after she returned home she discovered her first of five cancerous tumors.

Congress has finally recognized the dangers of burn pit exposure in the form of the Honoring Our Pact Act, a sweeping bipartisan bill that passed the House on 3 March 2022. The bill extends healthcare to 3.5 million veterans affected by burn pit exposure, but it has yet to become law and will only protect veterans with 23 registered conditions.

For female veterans like Hollings, who make up about 17% of the US military, their exposure symptoms are often outside this list. And even in cases when they are included – like that of Catherine O’Connors, who deployed to Iraq with the marines in 2005 – it can take female veterans years to access the benefits they deserve.

“This is just another instance where women veterans are not acknowledged for their specific needs within the system,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, founder of the non-profit Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving. “Or, where their service-connected disabilities are not associated with where they were stationed.”

Rosie Torres, the founder of BurnPits360, an organization that supports veterans suffering from toxic exposure and who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 23 years, says that even though the VA is a government administration, it could do more to help....

Read full article on The Guardian.


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