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Department of Veteran Affairs burn pit registry to track veterans' illnesses

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The use of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan has left thousands of veterans wondering whether their ailments could be related to breathing in the daily smoke from the fires. The pits - still in use in Afghanistan - were and are used to get rid of almost anything that accumulates around a military base. This includes human waste, garbage, chemicals, metal, paint, Styrofoam, solvents and medical waste.

The Department of Veteran Affairs has not acted quickly enough to deal with the conditions that could be the result of exposure to burn pit smoke, according to members of Congress and veterans advocacy groups. In fact, it took an act of Congress to get the VA to develop a registry to determine whether there was a link between certain illnesses and burn pits.

Any veteran who was stationed near a burn pit can join and be listed. Researchers will track the health conditions of participants. Over the long term, this could make it easier for veterans to receive disability benefits for illnesses contracted while serving near a burn pit.

Currently, disabled veterans must prove that their condition is related to burn pits in order to receive service-connected disability benefits. In other words, vets with respiratory and other diseases associated with burn pits cannot automatically obtain benefits for their conditions - such illnesses are not included in the list of presumptive conditions that automatically makes the link between the disability and service in the military.

For example, illnesses associated with exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam are now considered presumptive conditions. This reduces the time it takes for a vet to have his or her disability claim approved. However, many years passed between the end of the war in Vietnam and the inclusion of Agent Orange-related illnesses on the list of presumptive conditions. Will veterans with illnesses associated with burn pits in the Middle East face a similar challenge?

Until this question is answered, veterans exposed to burn pit smoke should get help. If you are a veteran with a respiratory or other illness that could have been caused by exposure to smoke from burn pits, do what countless other veterans have done: Call The Rep for Vets® and speak with one of the VA-accredited claims agents about your situation. They will know what to do next.

Source: Associated Press, "Health answers sought about burned-off war garbage," by Kevin Freking, Jan. 26, 2013.

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