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Former VA official: Burn pits could be the new Agent Orange

More than 25,000 veterans say they've been sickened by exposure to burn pits, but the VA doesn't recognize the link

Catch part two of America Tonight's reporting on burn pits Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on Al Jazeera America.

Anthony Thornton has trouble speaking, can’t read anymore and has trouble keeping up with his 3-year-old daughter. He said he doesn’t remember everybody’s name.

Thornton, 35, suffers from a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. Doctors had to take out parts of his brain – his temporal lobe and part of his hippocampus. 

“I’ve lost a lot, and what I would like to do, I don’t really have that anymore,” said Anthony Thornton. “I don’t like being like this.”

Thornton believes he got sick from toxins he was exposed to from massive, open-air burn pits while serving his country. Burn pits operated on U.S. military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan. At the height of the wars, more than 250 bases burned their trash, releasing large plumes of black smoke into the air.

“During the daytime, it was solid black. You could smell it,” he said. “And depending on where the sun was, it was so thick, it would block some of the sun.”

Thornton was a staff sergeant and worked as a prison guard at Camp Bucca in Iraq. He said the smoke from burn pits lingered above his living quarters. He was diagnosed with asthma and bronchitis while he was in Iraq. Three years after he came home, doctors found the tumor.

Kerry Baker is a former Veterans Affairs official who has analyzed the toxins found in burn pit smoke. For three years since he left the agency, he’s been fighting to get the Department of Defense and the VA to recognize that burn pit exposure has sickened veterans.

An example of a burn pit.
America Tonight

“Some of them are dying,” Baker said. “We have claims from widows whose [spouses] have died from various types of cancers. We have claims from young guys who just have diabetes or have lymphoma or have leukemia.”

Dr. Craig Postlewaite, the Department of Defense’s top public health official, said they’ve looked at numerous students and found no proven link to burn pits for long-term health effects.

“We know that people are sick, we’re really trying to do our best to determine if burn pits are responsible,” Postlewaite said.

The Department of Defense and, by extension, the Department of Veterans Affairs do not acknowledge that toxic exposures from burn pit smoke could have sickened servicemembers. That’s left veterans like Thornton fighting for compensation and recognition that they believe is owed to them.

As a result of the lobbying efforts of advocacy groups like, Burn Pits 360, the VA started an online registry for people who feel they are sick from burn pits.

After opening in June, 25,000 people have signed up so far.

But Baker says the registry doesn’t go far enough and that DOD and the VA need to recognize the illness people are suffering due to burn pit smoke.

“I think it absolutely could be this generation’s Agent Orange,” Baker said.

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