Posted By Elizabeth Watts, Anchor/Reporter - email
Daniel Meyer in uniform.
Daniel in dress blues.
Daniel in the hospital.
LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -
A new bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on Thursday recognizes veterans sickened or killed because of exposure to burn pits while fighting overseas.
Daniel Meyer, 28, was exposed to them and now is fighting a terminal illness. He, his wife and nine other families worked to push the legislation and call the new law a victory. They continue to work to raise awareness for what they say is this generation's Agent Orange.
Meyer was raised in Ohio but joined the Air Force when he was 21. He joined a few years into college because he was affected by the events of 9/11 he had seen unfold in high school. He was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Meyer served tours of duty in Iraq and then Afghanistan, where he was exposed to burn pits.
"They take all the trash on base and put it in a giant pile. They put jet fuel on it and light it on fire and let it burn," Meyer said.
He says the burn pit at his Air Force Base in Iraq was the length of 10 football fields and would burn 24 hours a day. Meyer's living quarters were next door. He would wake up covered in soot.
The senator who introduced the bill in the legislature says at the height of operations that AFB hosted 25,000 personnel.
"I'd wake up coughing from these fumes," Meyer said.
He said depending on the wind sometimes they'd be covered in smoke and couldn't see the person next to them. Oftentimes it would rain ash in the desert air.
Meyer said they'd burn everything from paint cans to tires and humvees, bottles to body parts. Sometimes Meyer would even work in the burn pits, shooting down birds that gathered and created flight hazards.
He said they were sent in with no protection. "We would get sent in without any masks, without any respiratory protection. I'd come out of the fire with nose bleeds and be coughing for weeks."
When Meyer was home between and after his two deployments, he was diagnosed with bronchitis about 25 times, but he knew something was really wrong. His health was deteriorating.
Finally his military doctors started running extensive tests.
Meyer and his wife married less than two weeks after meeting, just before he deployed for the first time. She's been nothing but supportive and is now his full-time caregiver. He says meanwhile his squadron who he had worked so hard for says he was making up excuses not to work.
"I just can't believe they didn't want to help me, you know. I got told multiple times it was all in my head, that I needed to see a psychologist," Meyer said.
After eight months of tests, Meyer was diagnosed in February 2011 with an extremely rare terminal lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans. The young man will be on oxygen and heart medication the rest of his life.
"My bronchial tubes are being scarred shut from toxic fumes and vapors I was breathing when I was over there."
The former runner is confined to a wheelchair with tumors on his knees. Doctors believe it is a buildup of healthy fat cells that were attracted to the heavy metals he was exposed to.
The only way he could possibly be helped is through a double lung transplant.
Meyer says shortly after he was diagnosed he found he was not alone. He and a group of about nine other families started websites and connected with hundreds of others affected.
"I realized two other guys, one in Texas and one in New Mexico, all in different branches of service, different age groups, we were all on same base at same time and ended up with same lung disease," Meyer said.
They worked to contact their legislators, and after nearly two years of hard work, the Open Burn Pits Registry Act was passed. Obama signed it into law Jan. 10.
Now the VA has one year to set up the registry which will tally deployments, symptoms and diseases. Doctors can go in and more easily diagnose a patient without having to run hundreds of tests. They can piece patterns together like Meyer had done on his own.
While he has been covered for his medical costs, he says others are being misdiagnosed and aren't getting the benefits they deserve.
While the legislation is considered a huge victory, Meyer worries this problem will grow as up to 300 pits continue to burn at bases in Afghanistan now.
"There's just so many people over there this could affect that I'm afraid we haven't seen anything yet," Meyer said.
Meyer wants to help others who may have been exposed to these toxic fumes. He has a blog here where he hopes anyone affected will reach out. Another website with symptoms, a registry and information to connect now is Burnpits360.
The honorably medically discharged staff sergeant said even after all he's been through, he would do it all over again and fight for his country.
Copyright 2013 KVVU (KVVU Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.
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