Military contractor awarded compensation for burn pit exposure while deployed in Iraq

Justice may not always be swift, but a former military base contractor whose health was compromised while working by the dense black smoke of burn pits was finally awarded compensation two years after the court ruled in her favor.

In January 2018, a judge under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office for Workers’ Compensation Programs decreed that open-air burn pits -- where thousands of chemicals were released into the air after trash and other wastes were incinerated at American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are connected to her lung disease. The ruling was made during a case filed by Veronica Landry of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who was sent to Iraq in 2004 by Kellogg, Brown, and Root and worked as a recreational and morale specialist at Mosul Air Force Base.

Landry was originally denied disability, with the judge in her case claiming that she was medically capable of returning to a warzone and work. But her case was recently modified.

Veronica Landry, who worked for a private contractor on Mosul Air Force Base in Iraq, returned home with PTSD and lung-related health issues.

Veronica Landry, who worked for a private contractor on Mosul Air Force Base in Iraq, returned home with PTSD and lung-related health issues. (Courtesy of Veronica Landry)

“The new medical opinions explained more clearly to the judge why I am unable to return to Iraq- and why doing so would worsen my lung disease,” Landry told Fox News. “I was awarded disability and some reimbursement for medical expenses.”

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The former contractor was awarded only $74 per week to cover her medical expenses. The award was based on the fact that she is currently employed.

“I have tried to remain positive and grateful for the outcome, but at the same time I believe I am being discriminated against because I have had no choice but to work ever since I returned from Iraq,” Landry said. “As a single mother, I didn't have the option to not work. I forced myself to return to work, sometimes weeks before the recommended rest period after having surgeries and lung exacerbations that landed me in the ICU for days.”

Landry was sent home early after developing PTSD. And making matters worse, she started to develop problems with her lungs and other ailments such as migraines, chills and dangerously low blood pressure. She has been in and out of hospitals for nearly 10 years.

A U.S. soldier looks at a burn pit in a base in Iraq.

A U.S. soldier looks at a burn pit in a base in Iraq. (Courtesy of Dan Brewer)

When symptoms flare up, Landry experiences severe pain and wheezing every time she takes a breath due to inflammation of her lungs. Tasks as simple as speaking can cause her to become light-headed when her condition acts up. She also suffers from fibrosis, which causes her to experience shallow breathing and swelling of her legs and feet from pitting edema.

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KBR’s insurance company, AIG, has refused to assist with her medical bills, but the recent judicial ruling made clear that AIG should be covering her expenses.

Landry says she fears the long-term health issues that could arise from her exposure to open-air burn pits.

Landry says she fears the long-term health issues that could arise from her exposure to open-air burn pits. (Courtesy of Veronica Landry)

In a statement provided by Fox News, officials from Kellogg, Brown, and Root maintain that their liability in burn pit exposure matters was low and that they complied with all regulations while operating various military bases under a contract with Washington during the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars.

“At the limited number of bases where KBR operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military,” reads the statement. “KBR complies with all applicable laws and contractual obligations, which includes providing the federally mandated and specified insurance coverage required for employees working overseas supporting the U.S. government.”

Landry’s attorney, Gary Pitts of Houston, says there’s significance in the recent ruling.

“It’s not how much she’s getting, but the fact that she’s being compensated,” Pitts said to Fox News. “A case like this, let’s build public awareness, and that adds more pressure for more research and I believe that will lead to strong new findings when it comes to burn pit exposure.”

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Landry is hopeful that this will lead to more action in Washington. And said she has started working with advocacy groups like Burn Pits 360 with lobbying efforts.

“I'm working with the hope that the ruling will help push for much-needed legislation to establish presumptive illness categorization of deployment-related diseases,” she said.

Since 2016, The Investigative unit at Fox News has extensively reported on burn pit exposure, which led to scores of interviews with veterans and their families as well as those who warned military officials during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan about the dangers of burn pits at bases like Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq. They also included inspectors who answered directly to the Pentagon and urged them to stop using the flawed method for trash disposal.

Burn pits, like this one at FOB Marez, were originally considered a temporary measure to get rid of huge amounts of waste generated at bases. The array of material sent to the pits is said to have included plastics, batteries, metals, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste.

Burn pits, like this one at FOB Marez, were originally considered a temporary measure to get rid of huge amounts of waste generated at bases. The array of material sent to the pits is said to have included plastics, batteries, metals, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. (Courtesy of John Nelson)

The decision marks a victory for the nearly 64,000 active service members and retirees who have put their names on a Burn Pit Registry created by the Veterans Administration, bringing them one step closer to getting adequate medical coverage, something that has never been guaranteed. Private contractors who were also exposed to the burn pit toxins also have been denied coverage.

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Soldiers have fallen gravely ill or even died from what their families say was due to their exposure to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, they are not the only ones who have gotten sick. Civilian workers and private contractors like Landry say that they are also suffering an array of maladies, including cancer, respiratory problems, and blood disorders. And like military victims, they say they are being ignored.

But private employees don't even have the Veterans Administration to lean on. Landry filed her case with the Labor Department for this very reason.

“This case has legitimized the disease,” Landry, whose case was a part of the ruling, told Fox News at the time. “There are many people out there who are still not getting the treatment they need.”