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How Our Project Helps Veterans

These three veterans believe their conditions were the result of exposure to toxins while deployed in the Middle East. While none can point to a specific event during deployment that may have caused their symptoms, all report new onset of symptoms following their return. Living with these illnesses has directly impacted their quality of life leading to frustration and concern about their future health. To make matters worse, they have experienced difficulty finding the help they need and deserve. Continued research to support our veterans and the clinicians who treat them is vitally important. This is the chief aim of the collaborative effort between Rutgers University and the VA’s HOME LEAP Project.

Dr. Chris Cirnigliaro

Chris was deployed during Operation Desert Storm from November 1990 to October 1991 and was attached to a forward infantry unit carrying out field and radio communications. As a result, he was consistently close to the burn pits, which operated 24 hours, 7 days a week. He described his living quarters as inadequate, often finding himself sleeping on a cot or the back of a truck some nights. Sanitation was lacking and there were no showers. A typical day for Chris included minimal rest, lack of food, and hazardous breathing conditions. The latter, he explains, were due to oil well fires creating plumes of thick smoke. His health problems, including asthma, a condition that makes it difficult to breathe, began when he returned from overseas. However, he could not pinpoint a precise cause. Now thirty years after his deployment, Chris worries about his health issues and whether they will increase in severity as he ages. To control his asthma, Chris takes medication and exercises regularly to remain active. Initially, Chris was not very familiar with the PACT Act application process and found it difficult to sign up. Despite having a PhD in health sciences, Chris found the PACT Act terminology confusing. Moreover, his phone calls to the VA for assistance were often unanswered. This lack of support in assisting veterans to navigate a complicated application process, he feels, is the principal problem. Most recently, Chris successfully filed his claim under the PACT Act. For now, he’s hopeful for a positive outcome.


Mr. James Ryan

James was deployed as a Naval Special Warfare Communicator in East Africa for seven months (April 2020-October 2020). James described his living conditions as a primarily wooden or “half-shell” structure with approximately 50 personnel sharing three showers, three stalls, and a couple of urinals. James and his comrades encountered poor air quality from the burn pit located within 200 meters of their living quarters. The host nation’s military primarily operated and managed the burn pit for all of the base’s garbage. The burn pit itself was not the only airborne hazard, though. James shared a story of routinely burning hard drives and other classified material to prepare for his team’s exit under the presidential order to withdraw nearly all US troops from East Africa. Since returning from overseas, James reports worsening sinus issues and headaches. As a result, he has applied for a disability rating from the Veterans Benefits Administration and enrolled in the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. Nevertheless, he worries that his exposure to open-air burn pits could result in significant illness in the future. James hopes that the PACT Act will provide compensation for veterans whose work required close exposure to airborne hazards. He firmly believes that veterans should not have to wait to receive benefits until later in life, when it is too late. James added that while the PACT Act is a step in the right direction and has a beneficial mission, it should be more strategic and proactive in identifying and rating service-connected conditions. James maintains that the PACT Act to date, has not resulted in meaningful benefits for him and other veterans.


Mr. John Andrews

John experienced three separate deployments in the Middle East. His first deployment was in Iraq from November 2003 to November 2004, where he describes the living conditions as poor with tents in close proximity to open-air burn pits, where occupants were exposed to burning feces and garbage. He lived in these tents at times. Other living quarters included containerized housing units, similar to these which were metal structures housing two to five soldiers each. It was not until January of 2004 when he gained consistent access to showers. His second deployment was from 2006 to 2007 in Baghdad and later, Baqubah, a city which lies northeast of Bagdad. While in Baqubah, John states there was no running water and describes the air quality as “terrible.” His primary duty consisted of guarding the installation’s burn pits to ensure enemies could not retrieve discarded items. During his third and final deployment (2009-2010), he was again directly exposed to burn pits. According to John, open-air burning of garbage using accelerants, such as gasoline, diesel, or other ignitable liquids, was common practice in Iraq causing the cities to smell like gas. Approximately one year after his final deployment, John started experiencing a severe loss of taste and smell, in addition to sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing pauses frequently during sleep. Unfortunately, he cannot point to a direct cause for these ailments. He uses a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine at night for his sleep apnea and finds it difficult to manage with no sense of smell or taste. John says that his conditions have affected his family and even exacerbated his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). John also expressed frustration with the VA processes surrounding his care.