Victor Somoza, a local veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, said he never expected to be struggling to breathe in his mid-30s.
Somoza, a veterans service officer with the Veterans Assistance Commission of McHenry County, blames his struggles on exposure to burn pits while serving overseas.
He served in the U.S. Army from 2005 to 2015. Somoza was deployed to Iraq twice – from 2008 to 2009 and 2010 to 2011. He served in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013.
He was exposed to open burn pits dozens of times throughout his military career. To reduce waste and destroy sensitive documents and materials that could be seized by enemy combatants, Somoza said it was common for soldiers to burn everything in large pits.
“We were burning feces, everything around you,” Somoza said, adding that batteries, plastic bottles, gear and documents all were incinerated.
“We were instructed to do it,” Somoza said. “It had a distinct smell.”
Somoza, 35, said most soldiers viewed the burns as a recreational activity.
“We called it a bonfire. We would gather around it,” he said. “We didn’t know any better, or that we were breathing in these fumes. Have you ever seen a radio battery burning? It’s just black smoke. It has a strong odor. But the worst [smell] was when you burned your own feces, human waste.”
Somoza said he sometimes would climb on top of rubbish to stir it into the fire.
“We did it about three times a week,” he said.
Somoza now blames those pits for his breathing problems.
“When I was in the Army, I would run every day. I was active,” he said. “When I got out, I was breathing heavily just from walking to the car or climbing a flight of stairs. I was gasping for air.”
Somoza said he was diagnosed with asthma.
“I was 33 years old and never had any history of asthma within my family,” he said, adding that he was prescribed albuterol to manage his symptoms. “I took that for a while, but I was denied [VA] service for bronchitis, even though I had that.”
Somoza said dozens of local veterans deployed to the Middle East conflicts struggle with similar problems.
“I struggle with it every day, even just putting on pants in the morning,” he said. “My wife notices it at night when I gasp for air.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize toxic burn pit exposure as a contributing factor to the development of respiratory illnesses, Somoza said.
Bill to help veterans
U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren recently joined a bipartisan effort to help veterans who might have been sickened by burn pits.
Last month, Hultgren, R-Plano, co-sponsored the Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Act of 2018. The bill would allow chronically ill veterans exposed to burn pits access to medical care and disability compensation benefits.
Hultgren could not be reached for comment.
The VA already has created a database of exposed veterans to study whether there is a connection between exposure to burn pits and illnesses. If adopted, this legislation would provide a presumption of service to affected men and women.
The bill also would establish the Open Burn Pit Advisory Commission, an independent body to be tasked with gathering the medical and scientific data necessary to make recommendations for burn pit-related maladies.