SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Joe Higgins served in Iraq in 2003 and was part of the invasion. He might not have imagined that if he lived through a war, he would fight another enemy, i.e. illness from being exposed to burn pits overseas.
“There was nowhere to throw out your trash, human waste or anything else. So, they would come through with a dozer, dig a giant hole and burn it off and fill it in,” said Willings, who is the chair of the Veterans Council of Chatham County.
Higgins says he was 29 in 2003 and began to experience health problems when he was 33 or 34. He says he knows other vets locally who were also exposed.
“There’s a lot of my friends that can’t make it up a flight of stairs without having to have an inhaler in their hand,” said Higgins. “A lot of guys have had colon resections and things like that done.”
Higgins says he has had serious colon problems and while he has thus far avoided a resection procedure, it may be necessary at some point.
WSAV has heard of a number of respiratory illnesses related to burn pits but had not heard of the colon and digestive issues. News 3 asked him why he believes those illnesses are related to burn pit exposure.
“I think it has to do with really, the flies. So our dining facility was about 100 yards from the burn pit. In these burn pits they were throwing trash and there was human waste and everything else,” says Higgins. “Well, the flies are landing on top of that whole mess right there and then immediately flying over to where we’re having breakfast, lunch and dinner and then landing on our food.”
Higgins says when he first began having an illness, he sought help from private doctors and thought that services from the VA (Veterans Administration) should be reserved for those seriously and or critically ill.
Now, at 48, he says he worries his condition is getting worse and he wants to avail himself of VA services as well.
“Those colonoscopies and the endoscopies and other procedures start to add up on your insurance,” he said. “And living with the problem gets old and tiring because many doctors can’t give you any answers.
“I know 30 to 40 local veterans just like me,” he said. “There’s a lot of younger veterans starting to get involved (in our organization) and that’s the first thing we talk about is asking how the other is feeling and then we start going through the list of what everybody has.”
Higgins worries about the future and says a bill to make it clear that vets have legitimate illnesses from burn pits is needed.
“I believe it’s something that they have to do. The burn pits are this generation’s Agent Orange,” said Higgins. “It’s creating the health issues that we’re all running into, health issues that we shouldn’t run into at our ages. So, this is our Agent Orange, this is something that needs to be dealt with.”