Air Force veteran and mom-of-three Amie Muller was just 36 years old when she was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would take her life nine months later.
Her husband Brian describes that moment as not only devastating for the family but also shocking. Amie was young, otherwise healthy and had no family history of cancer.
‘When you start Googling pancreatic cancer there’s really nothing good on the internet about it,’ he said. ‘Being how young she was we just knew that this just didn’t add up. The average age for pancreatic cancer is well into the 60s.’
Speaking to DailyMail.com from the home he shared with Amie in Woodbury, Minnesota, Brian explained that even before his wife became ill she had spoken about the burn pits at Joint Base Balad where she had been stationed during two tours of duty in Iraq.
Amie Muller served in the US Air Force as part of the military Intelligence Squadron and completed two tours of duty in Iraq. In 2017 she died following a short battle with pancreatic cancer aged just 36
Amie Muller with her family. From left to right: Amie, her daughter Caidyn, son Jace, daughter Emmerson, and husband Brian
Between the time of her diagnosis and her death in 2017, Amie became convinced that the toxic fumes generated by the burning of materials in these pits caused her cancer.
Soldiers have reported that the burn pits were used to get rid of all types of trash, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicines, munitions, animal corpses and even human waste. They could burn for 365 days a year, covering as much as ten acres and blanketing bases in thick black smoke.
Amie enlisted enlisted in the Air Force in 1998 and served two tours of duty at Balad in Iraq in 2005 and 2007 as part of the military Intelligence Squadron.
WHAT IS A BURN PIT?
Burns pits are areas on military sites overseas that are used to incinerate waste, hazardous material and chemical compounds.
During the wars Afghanistan and Iraq, it is thought that as many as 200 bases used open air burn pits to dispose of the vast amount of waste accumulated by the US armed forces.
Soldiers have reported that the burn pits were used to get rid of all types of trash, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicines, munitions, animal corpses and even human waste.
Jet fuel was often used to speed up the process and the pits could burn for up to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, covering as much as ten acres and blanketing bases in thick black smoke
Julie Tomaska, who served alongside Amie, described the constant dark black smoke and the lingering smell of the large open air burn pits that seemed to follow you no matter where you were working or living on base.
She said: ‘It was there with you at work, it was there with you when you went back to your tent at night. There was literally no escaping it.
‘The burn pits were constantly on fire, they were positioned directly between our living quarters in tent city and where we worked. They were continuously releasing large clouds of black smoke that drifted across the base, leaving soot and ash on everything.’
Julie added: ‘There was always a constant stench in the air, and on bad days it would leave a taste in your mouth. You would blow your nose and it would be soot or dust. We know now that much of what they burned was toxic, we had our suspicions at the time but now we know that for a fact.
‘At the time we were there, we knew that it was not a good situation. We would joke around about it and say that it would catch up with us later in life. We had no idea at the time how serious it would be.’
In late 2014, Amie started to experience severe fatigue and the family realized that something could be seriously wrong. At the time, Amie was caring for her two young children, Jace, now 8, and Emmerson, now 7, and she was struggling to stay awake through the day.
Amie, who also has an older daughter Caidyn, now 19, from a previous marriage, was diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer. Brian said his wife faced the cancer courageously and was determined to do everything she could to survive, but she succumbed to her illness in 2017.
Amie is just one of ten of thousands of veterans who believe that toxins generated the burn pits caused debilitating illnesses that include rare cancers, thyroid disorders, toxic brain injury, pulmonary disease and lymphoma.
The Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which was set up by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 2014 currently has more than 231,000 veterans signed up, but it is thought that the true number of US soldiers that have been exposed could be far higher.
Advocates for the victims of burns pit believe that as many as 3.5 million servicemen and women were exposed to toxins and carcinogens throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia over the course of both the Gulf war and the Global War on Terror.
A senior airman tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit on Joint Base Balad in Iraq. Burns pits are areas on military sites overseas that are used to incinerate waste, hazardous material and chemical compounds. During the wars Afghanistan and Iraq, it is thought that as many as 200 bases used open air burn pits to dispose of the vast amount of waste accumulated by the US armed forces
US Army soldiers watch waste incinerate in a burn-pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2013. Soldiers have reported that the burn pits were used to get rid of all types of trash, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicines, munitions, animal corpses and even human waste
Right up until her death, Amie was determined not only to raise awareness of the impact of the burn pits, but also to help ensure that the government supports the veterans who have been affected.
Brian said: ‘Amie would want to know that all veterans exposed to burn pits that are ill – whether it’s cancers or lung disorders or any other type of ailment – get compensated for protecting our country and serving our country.’
The families of US servicemen and women say they know when their loved ones are deployed overseas that there is a risk they will not return home, but they do not expect them to be harmed by simply breathing in the air on base. They also feel that they are then let down by the very organizations that are designed to support them when a veteran is sick or killed in service.
Gary Hughes joined the army when he was 18, studied for his GED and then went to Officer Candidate School. From there he climbed to the rank of Major, which is now displayed on his gravestone. He served in the Persian Gulf in 2006, followed by Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014.
Amie enlisted enlisted in the Air Force in 1998 and served two tours of duty at Joint Base Balad in Iraq in 2005 and 2007. Between the time of her diagnosis and her death in 2017, Amie became convinced that the toxic fumes that were generated by the burning of materials in these pits caused her cancer
Amie Muller with her daughter Emmerson and her son Jace. Her husband Brian said he is now concentrating on raising his two young children as a single dad, and takes some comfort in the fact that progress is being made on the issue of burn pits, which Amie had fought so hard for
His wife Kimberly said that her husband never smoked, rarely rank and worked out regularly so it was out of the ordinary when he called from Afghanistan complaining about breathing issues. At the time, he mentioned the burn pits and terrible air quality on base from what the soldiers named ‘The Crud’.
After returning home to Chicago, Gary opened a hair salon with Kimberly but by January 2016 he was having trouble swallowing and was struggling with exercise. By the time he was diagnosed with stomach cancer it had spread to his liver and he was facing a bleak prognosis.
After an intense treatment program that involved a port implant, 16 blood transfusions, chemotherapy every other week and radiation, it was discovered that the cancer had spread to the right side of Gary’s brain and he underwent surgery in March 2017.
‘I couldn’t take care of the business alone so we had to file bankruptcy,’ Kimberly said. ‘The cancer then went to his left side and he had another brain surgery December 2017.’
Gary died on the morning of February 28 shortly after his 50th birthday. ‘My husband did his job for 27 years for our country,’ Kimberly said. ‘He served with pride not knowing he was slowing being killed by the toxic air he was breathing 24/7 where he was stationed surrounded by burn pits.’
Kimberly Hughes not only had to deal with the grief of losing her beloved husband Gary to stomach cancer, but her family was then pushed into poverty after the VA deemed his illness not service related and refused him disability benefits.
A US Army soldier watches bottled water that had gone bad burn in a burn-pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2013
A bulldozer is used to maneuver refuse into a burn pit at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. The pits could burn for up to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, covering as much as ten acres and blanketing bases in thick black smoke
The mom-of-two told DailyMail.com that after Gary’s death she had to file for bankruptcy and lost both her home and the family business. Kimberley took on two part-time jobs to get by, but she ended up relying on food stamps to feed herself and her two teenage children Kaylee and Justin.
Kimberly said: ‘My Gary was an American hero, but he knew he was dying and leaving us destitute, feeling like a failed man. His last dying wish was ‘Fight this’.’
Gary had filed for service connection with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) but was denied disability benefits. Kimberly, who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, said: ‘I lost my husband of almost 20 years our kids lost their dad, we lost our business, our employees and our investments.
‘We had medical for three months after his death and we were cut off. At a time when we were supposed to be mourning, we were and trying to figure out what else we were losing. What kind of future will we have? Will my kids be able to go to college?
She added: ‘How could all this happen to a veteran family after the vet dies? We should not have to fight for benefits that we deserve. Gary served and knew he could die for this country and he did.
Gary Hughes joined the army when he was 18 and climbed to the rank of Major. He served in the Persian Gulf in 2006, followed by Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014. On returning home to the United States, Gary was diagnosed with stomach cancer that later spread to his liver and then his brain
Gary Hughes’ wife Kimberly, his daughter Kaylee and his son Justin stand behind his casket just after it was closed at his funeral in 2018
‘He deserved the decency to go in peace knowing that his name and thousands of others are not in vain. He served and we as a family made the ultimate sacrifice.’
The VA does not yet acknowledge a link between the burn pits and long-term health risks and is currently denying the vast majority of benefits claims submitted by veterans on the basis that there isn’t enough science to prove their illnesses are service-connected.
According to Congressman Raul Ruiz, last September VA officials told Capitol Hill lawmakers that 2,828 of the 12,582 disability claims filed by veterans related to burn pit exposure between 2007 to 2020 were approved. This equates to about 22 per cent.
In 2019, the VA said it had approved about 20 per cent of the more than 11,000 claims filed, denying around 80 per cent.
Congressman Ruiz said: ‘Our nation’s service members are returning home from the battlefield only to become delayed casualties of war. The VA and DOD cannot continue to neglect this self-inflicted wound on our veterans.’
Under the current law, a veteran must establish a direct connection from the burns pits to their health condition or disability in order to be eligible for VA benefits.
Gary Hughes undergoing treatment for brain cancer (left) and Gary’s children Justin and Kaylee standing in front of his gravestone (right). Gary died on the morning of February 28 2018 shortly after his 50th birthday
Gary Hughes’ funeral in 2018. His wife Kimberly said: ‘He deserved the decency to go in peace knowing that his name and thousands of others are not in vain. He served and we as a family made the ultimate sacrifice’
Last September, Congressman Ruiz introduced the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. This would remove the ‘burden of proof’ from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure to the burn pits.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told DailyMail.com that the burden should not be on the sick and dying veterans who had already done their job fighting for their country to then have to go home spend time researching on the internet to prove the burn pits caused their conditions.
She warned that veterans were going bankrupt trying to bear the huge bills for healthcare and urged Congress ‘to apply common sense and common decency to a broken process.’
BENEFITS DENIED: THE STATISTICS
VA officials revealed that from 2007 to 2020, just 2,828 of the 12,582 disability claims filed by veterans related to burn pit exposure were approved. This equates to about 22 per cent.
In 2019, the VA said it had approved about 20 per cent of the more than 11,000 claims filed, denying around 80 per cent.
A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Burn Pits 360 in November 2020 found that of approximately 12,740 veterans who filed claims, 2,876 (23 per cent) were granted as service-connected.
If passed, the new bill would mean veterans would only need to submit evidence of deployment to one of the 34 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, or receipt of a service-medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War.
The bill covers a list of diseases including cancer of any type, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], constrictive bronchiolitis, lymphoma, interstitial lung disease and emphysema.
Congressman Ruiz said he is hopeful that with the support of President Biden’s Administration ‘we can accomplish our goals to protect our service members from toxic exposure, ensure service members and veterans can access early treatment and care, and help our health care providers better understand how to care for our veterans.’
Advocates for the victims of the burns pits are particularly hopeful that Biden’s administration will act on the issue, since the president has a personal connection.
Although he has not drawn any concrete links, President Joe Biden has in the past acknowledged that the burn pits could have been a ‘significant’ factor that drove his son to an early death from terminal brain cancer in 2015 aged just 46.
Beau Biden served in Iraq from 2008 to 2009 both at Camp Victory in Baghdad and the Balad Air Force Base, where Amie Muller had also been stationed. A year later, the president’s eldest son was hospitalized with what appeared to be a mini stroke. In 2013, he was hospitalized once more and diagnosed with the most common form of brain cancer, glioblastoma.
In an interview with PBS News Hour in early 2018, Joe Biden told journalist Judy Woodruff that he was ‘stunned’ by a book which tracked his son’s exposure to the carcinogenic fumes.
Joe Biden was referring to The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers written by Joseph Hickman, which included a full chapter on Beau Biden, tracking his deployments in Iraq and his subsequent illness.
While Joe Biden noted that he was not aware of ‘any direct scientific evidence’ between his son’s cancer and the burn pits, he said: ‘Science has recognized there are certain carcinogens when people are exposed to them.
‘Depending on the quantities and the amount in the water and the air, [they] can have a carcinogenic impact on the body.’
Then in October 2019, Joe Biden sounded even more convinced of a link between the burn pits and his son’s cancer when he spoke at a Service Employees International Union convention about Beau’s service.
‘He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go,’ Joe Biden said. ‘And because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with Stage Four glioblastoma.’
President Joe Biden talks with his son US Army Captain Beau Biden at Camp Victory on the outskirts of Baghdad on July 4, 2009. While Joe Biden has noted that he is not aware of ‘any direct scientific evidence’, he has acknowledged that the burn pits could have been a ‘significant’ factor that drove his son to an early death from terminal brain cancer in 2015 aged just 46
Dr Robert Miller, a pulmonary physician at Vanderbilt University, became involved with the issue of the burn pits in 2004 when service members from the nearby Fort Campbell returned home from tours of duty in Iraq suffering from unexplained shortness of breath.
He told DailyMail.com that before deployment the men and women he interviewed were able to complete a two-mile run in 12 and a half minutes, but on return they were stopping and struggling to catch their breath.
The veterans were given standard standard evaluations including X-rays, CT scans and pulmonary function tests, and all of them came back normal.
Dr Miller said he found their stories of shortness of breath too convincing to assume nothing was wrong so he took the unconventional step of performing lung biopsies, which revealed manifestations of toxic lung injury including a condition known as constrictive bronchiolitis.
The physician said that his team found black pigment on the surface of the lung, as well as inflammation and scarring of the small airways, inflammation and scarring of the blood vessels, inflammation and scarring of the lining of the lung, and pigment deposits throughout the lung.
Amie Muller (left) and Julie Tomaska (right) in 2007. Julie is one of the veterans that underwent a lung biopsy after suffering from respiratory issues post-deployment. The pathology revealed emphysematous changes, pleural fibrosis and chronic pleuritis, as well as soot on the lungs
Although he explained that there is nothing in the biopsies that shows the toxic injuries are definitely related to the burn pits, he believes they are ‘absolutely’ related to deployment.
There are a number of exposures that can cause lung injury during deployment including dust storms, diesel exhaust, industrial exposures, battlefield smoke and IED explosions.
Dr Miller explained that the problem with constrictive bronchiolitis and other small airway diseases is that although they can be debilitating conditions, they do not show up on pulmonary function tests and CT scans which makes it very hard for veterans to claim disability benefits.
Some of the servicemen and women that Dr Miller has seen struggle to climb the stairs or exercise at any level without experiencing severe shortness of breath. He explained that this often leads to de-conditioning as these men and women can’t exercise and they often gain weight.
Although small airways diseases can be managed with inhalers like you use for asthma, there’s no cure for these respiratory problems.
Dr Miller explained: ‘There’s a large spectrum of symptoms. Some people are completely disabled because of either shortness of breath or chest tightness, others just notice that they can’t exercise at what they would consider a good level.’
Without an effective way to screen for these conditions, Dr Miller said many veterans are being dismissed by the VA and Department of Defense (DOD).
He added: ‘They’ve seen so many providers and been to so many clinics and so many VA and DOD facilities that tell them that nothing is wrong and that their pulmonary functions are normal. Yet they know they’re impaired.
‘They’ve been pushed around and dismissed so much that they are kind of emotionally desperate.’
A representative for the VA told DailyMail.com: ‘VA continually looks at medical research and follows trends related to airborne hazards exposures. There are multiple ongoing and extensive studies by DOD and VA looking into airborne hazards exposures. VA asked the National Academy of Sciences to provide another comprehensive consensus report on respiratory health effects of airborne hazards in Southwest Asia.’
Thick, black smoke rises from the burning oil fields in Kuwait in May 1991. The burning of the oil fields was a scorched earth policy in response to the United States-led coalition driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait
Firefighters try to extinguish a burning Kuwaiti oil well in May 1991. As Saddam’s troops retreated, they set fire to more than 600 oil wells and badly damaged many more, resulting in one of the worst environmental disaster the world has ever seen
In addition to the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, in 2019 the VA established the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence (AHBPCE) to specialize in clinical and transitional research related to airborne hazards and burn pit exposure.
The center is designed to expand ‘understanding of health outcomes and treatments with intensive clinical research’ and enhance ‘training and education initiatives to build and expand a network of specialized clinicians’. For the thousands of veterans who are still being denied benefits and left feeling abandoned by the very organizations that are meant to support them these initiatives are simply not enough.
Julie Tomaska, who served as Balad with Amie Muller in 2005 and 2007, is one of the veterans that underwent a lung biopsy after suffering from respiratory issues post-deployment. She told DailyMail.com that her surgeon noted visible soot on her lungs and the pathology revealed emphysematous changes, pleural fibrosis and chronic pleuritis, which is essentially extensive damage to the lungs and their lining.
The VA noted that she was exposed to the burn pits while serving in Iraq but granted her a zero per cent rating for her deployment related lung diseases, which means she is entitled to no benefits.
In the case of both cancers and respiratory problems, Dr Miller believes the problem lies in the lack of data to connect illnesses with the burn pits, but he said it’s unfair to place the burden on the veterans to find the proof.
‘We don’t believe that the people who have served in these wars deserve that kind of treatment,’ he added.
Retired Captain Le Roy Torres served in Iraq at Joint Base Balad from 2007 to 2008 where he said burn pits covered ten acres. He was immediately hospitalized on returning to the United States and was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis
Retired Captain Le Roy Torres served in the US Army both as a Texas State Trooper, which is a role he held for 14 years, as well as a soldier with 23 years of service.
He was deployed to Joint Base Balad from 2007 to 2008 and immediately upon return to the United States from Iraq he was hospitalized. He told DailyMail.com that since then he has made over 350 medical visits and been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis that he has no doubt was caused by his continued exposure to toxins from the burn pits.
‘The lack of specialized health care services from the VA and DOD forced me to exhaust my life savings to access specialized health care,’ he said. ‘As a man, a husband and a father I have felt stripped of my dignity, honor and health.’
THE LINK BETWEEN THE BURN PITS AND ILLNESS
The VA has denied benefits to veterans on the basis that there is not enough scientific evidence available to prove a direct link between the burn pits and the illnesses presented.
Burns pits are illegal on American soil and it has widely accepted that unregulated open air burning of garbage and waste has negative effects on the environment and on human health.
Burning certain materials has the potential to release carcinogens and other chemicals into the air, which if inhaled can cause cancer and respiratory disease.
On returning to the United States, Le Roy planned to continue working at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), where he had been employed pre-deployment since 1998, but due to his lung injuries he requested to be reemployed in a different role. The DPS refused.
Torres says that DPS officials pressurized him to resign because of the injuries he suffered during his military service. In 2017, Torres sued DPS alleging that his former employer’s failure to offer him a job that would accommodate his disability violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, a federal statute that prohibits adverse employment actions against an employee based on the employee’s military service.
On June 5 2020, Le Roy learned that the Texas Supreme Court has declined to hear his case. He now plans to take his appeal to the US Supreme Court.
‘As a military combat veteran and first responder my mission to serve is etched in my soul and heart and I will do so until that flag is draped over my coffin,’ Le Roy said. ‘Imagine returning home from war only to face a system of delay and deny, an employer unwilling to accommodate a war injury resulting in the involuntary end of my police career, foreclosure letters, repossession notices and denial of compensation claims.’
He added: ‘The mental and emotional trauma is from being shamed and treated like a defendant having to prove that I should have the right to keep my job after being injured in war. My employer the Department of Public Safety came to my house and stripped me of my credentials and my patrol car in front of my family like a criminal. I was punished for serving my country.’
Le Roy’s wife Rosie Torres worked for the VA for 23 years and after supporting husband and meeting a community of others facing similar injustices she launched grassroots advocacy campaign Burn Pits 360. More than 10,000 veterans have signed up to the non profit organization’s registry, the vast majority of which have been denied benefits.
‘As long as DOD and VA continue to use lack of research as a weapon against our warriors receiving care and benefits they are denying them the right to life,’ Rosie said. ‘We need treatment and benefits now.’
She explained that Burn Pits 360 has formed a coalition with 9/11 advocates, veteran entrepreneurs, veteran public figures, military families, unions, first responders, health experts and researchers to educate the United States and seek justice.
Rosie said: ‘Congress must act quickly. Decades of advocacy begins with the suffering, the wounded and the dead whose families are now calling on Congress demanding justice. It’s time to deliver hope to the service men and women that borne the burden of America’s defense. It’s time we recognize these injuries as an instrumentality of war.’
Former The Daily Show host Jon Stewart is the most prominent public figure to speak out on behalf of the victims of the burn pits after successfully battling for a bill to aid first responders who became sick as a result of their work during 9/11. He has noted parallels between the treatment of the victims of burn pits and 9/11 responders.
Prior to his deployment to Iraq, Le Roy Torres had served as a Texas State trooper and had been working for the Department of Public Safety since 1998. Due to his injuries sustained while serving overseas, Le Roy said he was pressurized to leave his job
At a press conference last September to push the Presumptive Benefits Act, he said: ‘It turns out that the warfighters that were sent to prosecute the battle based on the attack on 9/11 now suffer the same injuries and illnesses that the first responders suffer from, and they’re getting the same cold shoulder from Congress that they received. And so the fight starts again.
‘Our veterans lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week next to toxic smoke, dioxins – everything. And now they’re being told, “Hey man, is that stuff bad for you? I don’t know we don’t have the science.” It’s bulls***. It’s bulls***. It’s about money.’
Many of the advocates for the victims of burn pits have also pointed to parallels with Agent Orange, a herbicide that was sprayed by the US forces during the Vietnam War to clear the thick jungle bush and deprive guerrilla fighter of cover.
Over the course of a decade, nearly 20 million gallons of the toxin was used in Vietnam, Laos and parts of Cambodia to destroy plants and trees. Containing the deadly chemical dioxin, Agent Orange not only killed a significant amount of plant life and left soil and water contaminated, but it caused severe diseases in both the Vietnamese population and the US troops.
American soldiers returning home from service in Vietnam reported mysterious illnesses and cancers that at first seemed to have no explanation. Even after it became clear that the soldiers affected had served in areas where Agent Orange was sprayed, the VA and DOD still refused to acknowledge the link between the toxins and the sick veterans and denied them medical benefits.
The USS Wisconsin, which was stationed on the shoreline of Kuwait and Iraq when Saddam’s troops set fire to the oil fields in 1991. Brendan Holmes, who as a Tomahawk Weapons Control System Database Manager, is in the front row bottom right
It was not until 1991 that President George H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law, by which time many veterans had died from related illnesses, while others waited decades for their disability benefits to be granted.
Dr Miller points out that it is still unclear how the respiratory problems currently being experienced by American veterans will progress and is concerned that their conditions may deteriorate, leading to greater de-conditioning and a poorer quality of life.
Especially in light of the current pandemic, he fears that veterans with breathing difficulties may struggle if they catch a respiratory infection like COVID-19 or even the flu.
Brendan Holmes served in the US Navy as a Tomahawk Weapons Control System Database Manager during the Gulf War and was stationed on the shoreline of Kuwait and Iraq when Saddam Hussein’s troops set fire to the oil fields in 1991.
The burning of the oil fields was a scorched earth policy in response to the United States-led coalition driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. As Saddam’s troops retreated, they set fire to more than 600 oil wells and badly damaged many more, resulting in one of the worst environmental disaster the world has ever seen.
Brendan Holmes with his father during a Desert Storm Parade. After retiring from the military in 1992, Brendan began to suffer with severe respiratory problems that he believed were a result of being exposed to burning petroleum during the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields in the Gulf War
Brendan Holmes (right) with his family in Ithaca, New York in June 2020. From left to right: Brendan’s daughter Victoria (aged 14), daughter Caitlin (aged nine), wife Kim and son Liam (aged seven)
From on board the USS Wisconsin, Brendan and his fellow servicemen and women were surrounded by the thick black smoke from the fires for ten days straight without adequate air filtration.
‘Without exaggeration, you could not see your hand in front of your face,’ he said. ‘It was jet black unfiltered burning petroleum.’
Brendan explained that they were ordered to stay on station on the shoreline in case they needed to provide gun support to the marines, all the while breathing in burning petroleum.
As early as the winter of 1993, Brendan started experiencing severe bronchitis and has since struggled with respiratory problems. Unlike many of the veterans that Dr Miller has treated from the Iraq war, Brendan has displayed reduced pulmonary function, which has deteriorated over the years.
He is now on steroids that he will need to take for the rest of his life, but without them Brendan says he struggles to complete even simple everyday activities.
‘I would never have been able to walk up and down a hill,’ he explained. ‘We have three young kids. I have a seven year old that wants to run around like crazy, but previously I’d walk 100 yards and I wouldn’t be able to breathe.’
Brendan, who lives with his wife and children in Corning, New York, said he has applied for disability benefits from the VA but has repeatedly been denied.
Now aged 51, he said that he has been fighting this issue for nearly 30 years. Brendan added: ‘The VA changes their stance every single time you submit a claim for them to review the damage. I’ve submitted a claim four times and it’s been denied four times. And it’s for different reasons each time.’
Julie Tomaska (left) and Amie Muller (right) returning home in 2005 after their first deployment in Iraq. Brian Muller said he is now concentrating on raising his two young children as a single dad, and takes some comfort in the fact that progress is being made on the issue of burn pits, which Amie had fought so hard for
If passed, the Presumptive Benefits bill would also cover American veterans who served in the Gulf War so former servicemen and women like Brendan would be entitled to the disability benefits that many of them are still fighting for.
Like many of the veterans who have been exposed to the burn fits and are still fighting for benefits, Brendan is hopeful that the bill is a sign that the VA and the DOD will acknowledge that these illnesses are an injury of war and will provide care for those affected.
In Woodbury, Minnesota, Brian Muller said he is concentrating on raising his two young children as a single dad, and takes some comfort in the fact that progress is being made on the issue of burn pits, which Amie had fought so hard for.
He said: ‘It’s gotten a little easier over time but it’s there’s still definitely moments where I break down and think about the fact that my kids are going to grow up without their mom and it sucks.’
‘There are a lot of other families just like us and that’s what’s really sad. All these people served our country and because of negligence by the government not doing the right thing a lot of them are getting sick and that’s just not right. That needs to change.’