If you served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Djibouti, or in the Southwest Asia theater of operations, you may have worked near open air burn pits, oil well fires, or other airborne hazards. After exposure to the toxic fumes from these hazards, especially the burn pits, many people returned home with respiratory illnesses or ultimately suffered other medical conditions, including:

  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Reduced function of the central nervous system
  • Reduced function of the liver or kidneys
  • Upper or lower respiratory system problems
  • Leukemia or skin cancer

During deployment, military personnel used these pits to burn many types of waste and trash, and the pits burned day and night. It’s reported that some bases burned over 200 tons of waste each day. The smoke from these pits created what some called a “toxic plume” that settled over the service members’ living quarters and work areas. The smoke was considered toxic because paint, petroleum, rubber, Styrofoam, human and medical waste, oil, electrical equipment, and even amputated body parts were burned in these pits—creating an airborne hazard, especially for people with asthma or other lung or heart issues.soldier with breathing problems

Although many service members returned home complaining of respiratory problems and suffering symptoms of respiratory illnesses and other medical conditions, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Congress found no evidence that links these illnesses to burn pit exposure. Both agencies investigated claims that this exposure may lead to long-term respiratory diseases and conditions, but they did not provide a presumptive service connection for respiratory illnesses due to burn pit exposure.

This makes getting VA disability for this exposure challenging. Currently, many soldiers feel their health was compromised due to their time spent near burn pits and have medical documentation to back up their claims. But without a recognized connection between these medical conditions and pit exposure, it’s much harder to get compensation. Because the VA determines these claims on a case-by-case basis, hiring a disability lawyer is in your best interests.

Disability Benefits for Burn Pit Exposure

Although there isn't specific disability support for military personnel who believe their illnesses were caused by burn pit exposure, the Social Security Administration (SSA) added constrictive bronchiolitis to its Blue Book Listing of Impairments that qualify for benefits. Thus, veterans have better access to Social Security (SS) benefits for a medical condition associated with exposure to the toxic smoke that has significantly increased among veterans who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Ways to Increase Your Chances of Receiving Compensation

If you choose to file a VA benefits claim for burn pit exposure, there are a number of things you can do to better improve your chances of receiving benefits, including:

  • Be specific about your medical diagnosis and symptoms. It’s important to explain your symptoms in detail and how your doctor diagnosed your medical issue. It’s not good enough to state, “I believe I have issues after being exposed to smoke from burn pits.” The more comprehensive and specific you can be about your medical issue, the better. It’s more effective to state, “My doctor diagnosed me with constrictive bronchiolitis, and I’m short of breath when I walk. I also have a persistent cough.”
  • Consider getting an independent medical exam or opinion (IME/IMO). Veterans are encouraged to obtain a medical opinion or exam from an independent medical professional. Because many simple claims get denied by the VA, having expert help can be beneficial in preparing a claim. An IME requires that you are physically present with a physician who exams you. An IMO is an opinion given by your physician after reviewing all of your medical records. If you choose to have an IMO, the doctor needs to understand the law that applies to the claim and how disability conditions affect your quality of life.
  • Hire a lawyer. Because doctors are not always trained in disability law, it’s helpful to have an attorney work with you.
  • Don’t give up. Veterans who never give up on their claims, stay persistent, and appeal denied claims are usually the ones who ultimately receive compensation.

We Can Help

If you worked near a burn pit and were exposed to its toxic fumes during active service, and you believe your respiratory issues are service related, contact Cuddigan Law at 402-933-5405. We’ll schedule an appointment to discuss your eligibility for benefits.


Sean D. Cuddigan
Connect with me
SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska