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The Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal from veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who say the toxic smoke from burn pits made them sick. A group of vets had sued the military contracting giant KBR for damages, but the 4th Circuit of Appeals ruled that KBR was under U.S. military direction when it burned tires and medical waste next to soldiers' barracks. Monday's Supreme Court decision ends their lawsuit, but as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, the issue of burn pits is not going anywhere.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: In 2007, Balad Air Base in Iraq was so big that several different bus lines carried troops from the airfields, to the chow hall, to the barracks like a small city. And it produced tons of garbage, which was burned in open pits, sometimes right next to those barracks. And many troops that slept there got sick.
ROSIE TORRES: You know, he's got the lung disease and cognitive issues - horrific headaches.
LAWRENCE: Rosie Torres is talking about her husband, Leroy, who served 23 years before medical retirement. He was at Balad in 2007. And he came home and immediately went to the hospital for a debilitating lung condition. Things have gotten worse since.
TORRES: Here, recently, he's been diagnosed with a toxic brain injury, which we didn't even know was possible.
LAWRENCE: That's what's causing his memory loss and other symptoms, she thinks. The Torres have started an organization called Burn Pits 360, and in part, due to their lobbying, the VA created a registry where more than 160,000 veterans and counting have reported symptoms that they believe came from burn pit exposure. Hundreds of them were part of a lawsuit against KBR, which had the contract to dispose of the waste.
The case has been going nearly a decade until it finally died Monday at the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court let stand a lower court's ruling that KBR was acting under military supervision and is immune from liability. So the court never took up the question about whether the burn pits caused the harm, says James Ledlie, an Army vet and lawyer for the plaintiffs.
JAMES LEDLIE: Our veterans deserve better. There's no doubt that they were exposed to burn pits run by civilian contractors. And it's unfortunate that they didn't have their day in court to have their claims truly adjudicated on the merits.
LAWRENCE: KBR has argued in similar litigation that it should be reimbursed for its legal fees, which in this case could be tens of millions of dollars. Neither KBR, nor the Pentagon, would comment on that by airtime. Vets who believe that burn pits made them ill must now rely on the VA to treat and compensate them. Which is a problem, says Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
PAUL RIECKHOFF: Burn pits are our generation's Agent Orange.
LAWRENCE: Rieckhoff is referring to the defoliant used in Vietnam that was found to cause cancer. Many vets died decades before the VA recognized their cancer was caused by Agent Orange. Some Navy vets exposed to it still aren't presumed to have a service-related condition. Rieckhoff says the data aren't conclusive yet about burn pits, but the fight is feeling familiar.
RIECKHOFF: The real parallel now with Agent Orange is that it seems like we're fighting the government to recognize that this exists. The Vietnam vets right now are still fighting for Agent Orange presumptions. So we don't want to be sitting in the same spot 40 years from now fighting for recognition and health care support for burn pits.
LAWRENCE: That fight is in Congress, which is where burn pit veterans will have to turn next now that they've lost in court. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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