Updated: Friday, 04 Mar 2011, 10:36 PM MST
Published : Friday, 04 Mar 2011, 10:36 PM MST
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Master Sgt. Jessey Baca now serves with the New Mexico Air National Guard and has for 34 years, but he is in a battle for his life.
He is among a growing number of military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now suffering from mysterious health problems. Personnel returning to the states after their tours of duty often called the ailment "Iraq crud."
Many believe the massive burn pits are to blame.
Burn pits are used by the military to get rid of refuse. Huge trash heaps are set on fire, and everything from kitchen garbage to medical waste to spent chemicals and plastic water bottles is thrown in. The piles are doused with spent jet fuel and ignited.
Baca said the pits must be within the fence line for safety purposes, and as a result troops all live under the thick smoke and ash, day in and day out.
Baca served twice in Balad, Iraq , in sight of one of the largest burn pits in Iraq. Soon after returning from his first deployment, Baca noticed changes in his health.
"I've been treated by several doctors here in Albuquerque, and I always get the famous inconclusive," he said. "And I say, 'What do you mean? I have fevers, I'm freezing to death, I'm weak, I go out to do my daily activities and I'm struggling! Something is wrong here!'"
A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study found the risk of asthma is 1-1.5 percent higher in military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan than in those who have served stateside, according to Dr. Dona Upson, a pulmonary specialist with the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque. A larger study is now underway with the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the VA, she added.
This study will look at the impact of the burn pits on 30,000 military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and compare their respiratory results to 30,000 soldiers who have not served in those theaters.
Last year there were congressional hearings on the impact of the burn pits. Awareness is increasing, but it is a slow process. KRQE News 13 asked New Mexico's recently appointed secretary of the Department of Veterans' Services, Col. Tim Hale about the burn pits.
"Before this interview, this is the first time it's come across my desk that it's an issue here in New Mexico," he said. Hale served in Iraq and admits the burn pits are nasty. He said he believes more access to treatment and diagnosis will soon be available.
Recently Air Force Times reported congressional pressure has prompted the Defense Department to make respirators and gas masks available to all troops near the burn pits over the next few months.
In 2006, Baca was diagnosed with basil cell carcinoma and mysterious tumors in his hands and neck. He attempted to be diagnosed for rare forms of irreversible lung disease, but it required a biopsy, which he could not get it done in New Mexico.
He and his wife Margaret pushed for answers and ended up at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Baca just returned from Vanderbilt and was diagnosed with mesophilioma and chronic bronchiolitis . Both conditions have no cure and no treatment.
Online: Burn Pit 360 advocacy organization.