FARGO — Melissa Gillett LeDuc and fellow airmen had a running joke in Afghanistan sung to the Folgers coffee jingle — the “best part of waking up” was burn pit in their lungs.
Except, they knew it wasn’t funny.
She and tens of thousands of others were exposed over the years to the fumes and haze of open-air burn pits on U.S. military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of Southwest Asia.
Serving with the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing out of Duluth, Gillett LeDuc’s exposure happened over a six month deployment to Bagram in 2009-10.
“It was like vomit, burning vomit. All the time. Like, sickly sweet but not good sweet,” Gillett LeDuc said, in describing the smell.
She knew then that being on the base, where hazardous waste was burned daily, was bad for human health. “We wouldn't do that here, right, so why is it OK there? Because nobody’s looking?” she wondered.
Now 35 and a mother of three living in West Fargo, she deals with respiratory problems that prompted her to leave the military, and that affect her quality of life.
Chronic asthma, sinus and ear infections, hearing loss, and a persistent cough, all appearing after her exposure, can cause her to miss work on short notice or reach for her rescue inhaler.
But for the last few years, a cash payment each month related to her 60% service-connected disability has helped her cope with the burdens.
Gillett LeDuc joined the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, established in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to better understand how chronic health conditions may be related to these exposures.
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the Biden administration announced steps to accelerate the process of making those determinations.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and others have described burn pits as this generation’s Agent Orange, a reference to the tactical herbicide used by the U.S. military in Vietnam that caused Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and numerous kinds of cancers in veterans.
It took years, even decades, for many veterans exposed to Agent Orange to be compensated.
“We don’t want the same thing to happen here,” Klobuchar said.
In August, the VA added rhinitis, or nasal inflammation, to the list of presumptive conditions from burn pits, which also includes asthma and sinusitis, or sinus inflammation.
What’s not known is whether the exposure will lead to more serious conditions down the line.
In October, the VA launched an outreach campaign to contact veterans who were exposed and encourage them to get on the registry.
Gillett LeDuc only learned about it through word of mouth. Otherwise, “I probably would never have found out,” she said.
'I couldn't breathe'
Gillett LeDuc grew up in a military family — her father, a chaplain in the Army Reserve, and her older brother, a member of the Marine Corps.
She had friends serving in the Minnesota Air Guard 148th Wing out of Duluth and figured if they could do it, she could too. During her last semester at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she pulled the trigger and signed on.
First, she volunteered to go to Kuwait with the North Dakota Air Guard 119th Wing. Less than a year later, before Christmas 2009, she deployed with her unit to Afghanistan.
It was a different experience than Kuwait, where the airmen did not carry weapons.
“In Afghanistan, we always had our M16s on us,” she said.
Gillett LeDuc worked as a generator mechanic and helped maintain aircraft arresting systems — the cable units designed to catch an aircraft on emergency landings. “We caught seven fighter jets while I was there, which was crazy,” she said.
Another difference was how the base handled waste.
In Kuwait, they had large receptacles that were hauled away. In Afghanistan, a massive burn pit was used to dispose of waste generated by 30,000 troops on base.
Items doused in jet fuel and burned could include chemicals, paint, plastic, rubber, metal cans, batteries, munitions, petroleum and human waste.
Gillett LeDuc took up running there to pass the time while not on duty, and despite the poor air quality, was able to do 10K and 20K runs. Still, she was often sick with what seemed like a cold and coped by taking over-the-counter meds.
As the unit prepared to leave Afghanistan, she said airmen were instructed to sign a form indicating they would not hold anyone responsible for effects related to burn pits.
While some didn’t hesitate because they were anxious to get home, Gillett LeDuc refused to sign and asked to talk with her commander. She never heard about the form again and was allowed to leave with her unit, she said.
Back home, she attempted to resume her running schedule. “When I tried to run, I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
She eventually had to get out of the military because she was unable to pass a fitness test.
Gillett LeDuc has had surgery to remove adenoid tissue in the back of her throat because it was restricting her airway, but the tissue is growing back.
A fellow airman in the 148th Wing was among those who suffered a worse fate.
Amie Dahl-Muller of Woodbury, Minnesota, was diagnosed in 2016 with Stage III pancreatic cancer at age 36 and died less than a year later.
She believed her cancer was caused by burn pit exposure during two deployments to Balad Air Force Base in Iraq.
Klobuchar said Minnesota veterans like Amie and their families prompted her to push for change. “They said, ‘We could do better,’” the senator said.
Gilllett LeDuc is bothered by the blame shifting that has plagued the burn pit controversy.
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have often been denied compensation for burn pit exposure by the VA, which said private contractor KBR was responsible for operating the pits.
Hundreds of those veterans turned around and sued KBR, which maintained it was acting on orders from the U.S. government. The lawsuits were tossed out on the premise that federal courts cannot second-guess the executive branch’s wartime decisions.
In 2019, the veterans lost their years-long battle when an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for reinstatement of the lawsuits was denied.
There should still be more ownership over the burn pits, Gillett LeDuc said, because someone in the U.S. government made a conscious decision to dispose of waste that way.
She believes families whose loved ones were exposed and have died need to be taken care of.
She encourages fellow veterans who breathed in the acrid air during their service to sign onto the registry, even if they aren’t experiencing health problems yet, and to be vocal.
“The more people try, the more they'll see that it's serious ... that there needs to be something done,” she said.