ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Timothy Lowery went to Iraq in 2007. He came home in 2010, and started showing symptoms of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Three years later, he was dead.
This is the extent of what his family knows for certain.
But they have strong suspicions that daily exposure to burn pits – the massive, open-air ditches where the military dumped its waste and lit it ablaze – contributed to his condition.
Lowery, a plumber with one of the U.S. military’s largest contractors, KBR, walked by the pits daily as he installed piping, painted runways, and otherwise worked to help keep Al Asad Airbase running. Every day, he breathed in air filled with the smoke of burning metals, chemicals, and human waste.
Across the country, other families are worried, too. Thousands of returning veterans and civilians are now attributing myriad symptoms – respiratory problems, neurological disorders, cancers and ALS – to exposure to the burn pits, which were located at dozens of bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A lot of us got really sick from upper respiratory stuff,” said Stacy Fogarty, an Air Force veteran who came home from Iraq with asthma and other breathing problems. “They’re doing the research right now, but my personal prediction is it’s going to be like Agent Orange for this era. We just don’t really know what the ramifications are yet.”
Many are trying to get the military to cover their medical costs. Others are suing KBR, which operated some of the burn pits, accusing them of dumping into them all manner of unapproved items – tires, oil, chemicals and medical waste.
For the Lowerys, the controversy has brought a fresh edge to their pain. Now, they’re not sure whether his death was bad luck, or whether he spent his years overseas being slowly, steadily poisoned.
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