Staff Sgt. Moses Scarberry was a former high-school football player who could easily run seven-minute miles when he joined the military in 2001.
After convoys through sandstorms and exposure to trash burning in open pits during a tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has changed. In a recent physical-fitness test, he couldn't complete a mile run without stopping to walk. "I felt like I was breathing through a plastic bag," said the 30-year-old military policeman with the West Virginia Army National Guard.
As another Veterans Day nears, lung problems have proved to be a persistent concern for those who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military is struggling with how to address the phenomenon. Now, the Department of Defense is reviewing its policy of not requiring mandatory lung tests for troops amid growing outside pressure to take a harder look at what two wars in perennially dusty, sometimes toxic climates have done to soldiers' lungs and how to better handle these issues in the future.
Staff Sgt. Scarberry will get some disability compensation for below-average performance on lung-health tests. But because he was never tested before his deployments, it is impossible to know how much his lungs have actually deteriorated.
He also has also been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, an ailment known to afflict unprotected chemical workers, which most likely will get worse over time.
Other service members are in similar situations, because unlike many fire departments and industries where workers face potential lung problems, the military doesn't require the tests until after troops report problems.
Returning veterans and contractors have brought lawsuits against their employers and the U.S. government, citing exposure to burn pits, where troops typically burn all their trash while on deployment, including plastics, human waste and things like batteries. Congress has ordered the VA to establish a burn-pit registry by January, where vets from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf Wars can log on and document their concern about health problems tied to the exposure.
But the military has been reluctant to take baseline measurements when troops join, which would cost about $254 million to implement for the 2.3 million service members, according to the DoD.
Some military doctors also are reluctant to test soldiers before problems show up, saying there are questions whether such testing is effective.
"In general, there is no evidence to say that baseline testing will inform our response" to a soldier who is having lung problems, said Paul Ciminera, director of post-deployment health at the Veterans Health Administration.