WASHINGTON – Hundreds of veterans and their families who have spent eight years in federal court trying to prove that burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan made U.S. troops sick are worried they’ll hit a legal dead end if a Maryland judge decides the company that ran the smoke-belching disposal sites can’t be sued because it was working on behalf of the government.
“It’s been a living hell, emotionally, financially and physically,” said Rosie Torres, whose husband, LeRoy, a former Army Reserve captain, was diagnosed with a debilitating, progressive lung disease after he returned home to Texas following a deployment to Iraq. “It is the war that followed us home.”
For Dina McKenna, the case represents hope for long-delayed justice from a military contractor. The widow, who now lives in Tennessee, initially survived on charitable donations until Veterans Affairs benefits kicked in after her 41-year-old husband, former Army Sgt. William McKenna, died in 2010 from a rare form of T-cell lymphoma. He had served in Iraq.
“What do I want out of this lawsuit? I want the rules changed so soldiers don’t go through this again. I want to see money distributed to families who lost their homes — because their spouse suffered or is suffering,” McKenna said.
Torres and McKenna are among 735 plaintiffs waiting for U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus to decide whether to let a massive lawsuit continue against Houston-based KBR Inc., a defense contractor and former subsidiary of Halliburton that ran burn pits to dispose of waste on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KBR has asked the judge to dismiss the burn pit case, arguing that the federal courts lack jurisdiction to rule on a military decision to use the burn pits, and as a military contractor, it should be shielded from litigation. The company released a statement June 29 saying its employees operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan “safely and effectively at the direction and under control of the U.S. military.”
“The government’s best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded there is no link between any long-term health issues and burn pit emissions,” the statement read.
Those suing KBR say the smoke from burning millions of pounds of trash in open pits caused acute and chronic health conditions for those working and living nearby.
KBR burned all kinds of refuse at the sites — some as large as 10 acres — including canvas, wood, paint, batteries, computers, fuel, plastic water bottles, animal carcasses and even human medical waste.
Titus, who held a hearing in March, has not said when he will announce his decision on whether the court has jurisdiction. But he tossed the case once before, in 2013, when he agreed with KBR that military contractors should share the same immunity from litigation over war injuries that the U.S. government has.
The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Titus’ decision in 2014, saying more evidence was needed to determine whether KBR had met its contract conditions. KBR unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case in 2015, sending it back to Titus.