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Burning questions linger over burn pits and illnesses in veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Thousands of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home only to find new enemies inside their bodies. They include lung trouble, nerve disorders and cancers. Many wonder if the cause was in the fumes they inhaled.

Where there's fire, there's smoke. Massive plumes rose from burn pits one to three acres long where tons of waste from war were dumped.

"We would arrive at the burn pit, unload a truck, either a five-ton LMTV full of supplies or trash and dump it overboard into the pit, and this was burning constantly," said Brandon Garrison.

Tires, paint, transmission fluid, human waste, animal carcasses. Garrison says he saw it all in pits in Afghanistan, and he and countless other soldiers inhaled the smoke.

"At the time, you realize that it's a necessary hazard in order to accomplish the mission," said Garrison.

Eight years later, Garrison lives with a brain injury and post-traumatic stress from combat. It's why he has a service dog. But Garrison points to the burn pits as the likely cause of other problems including nerve twitching, muscle pain and weakness that hospitalized him last year. He also has chronic inflammation of the prostate.

"She believed I'd been exposed to some sort of nerve agents or chemicals that caused this," said Garrison of the doctor who diagnosed the prostate problem.

Other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan complain of breathlessness. When one came to see Dr. Michael Crosser, a pulmonologist at the University of Kansas Hospital, he saw nothing unusual on a lung scan or a lung function test. So he ordered a biopsy that revealed a rare condition called constrictive bronchiolitis. Other doctors have diagnosed it in vets, too.

"We think there was a toxic exposure to some chemical that changes the lung in the flow of air through the lung at the microscopic level that makes it difficult to breathe," said Dr. Crosser.

He says all the vets reported exposure to burning.

The VA has started a registry for vets who believe they were exposed to fumes from the pits. But the VA says, "Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits at this time."

Garrison said, "It seems like nothing is being addressed and if so, it's taking years upon years to do so."

His father was also a soldier in the Mideast eight years ago. He recently died of brain cancer. Garrison wonders if the cancer was linked to toxic fumes.

"He told me to keep fighting because he said if I don't, nobody will," he said.

Long after he hung up his boots, Garrison is fighting for answers.


 

After this story aired, multiple members who served with Brandon Garrison’s unit in Afghanistan contacted FOX 4 News, suggesting inaccuracies in Garrison’s claims about his service. FOX 4 contacted Garrison’s military supervisor, 1st Sgt John Kimball, at Ft. Drum, New York.  Sgt. Kimball confirmed that Garrison did not work directly at the burn pits and said Garrison would have experienced no more exposure than other soldiers on base. Sgt. Kimball also stated that to his knowledge, Garrison did not suffer a brain injury while serving in Afghanistan.