Maj. Kevin Wilkins, USAF
Her passion is almost like a ministry. Jill Wilkins, 50 of Eustis, Florida checked her Facebook page this morning. She had 1,100 new friends.
Wilkins talks in an upbeat way with anyone who will listen. She helps families seek answers and military benefits for the returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan who are reporting an array of illnesses - from cancer to Parkinson’s disease, skin rashes to tremors.
The unifying thread – all had been exposed to burn pits during their time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
No one knows how many people have been exposed to smoke from burn pits or exactly how many are in operation in Iraq and Afghanistan but they do know what’s put in them – everything.
The multi-acre unregulated garbage pits are where military base waste is soaked with jet fuel and torched - kitchen garbage, unexploded ordnances, gas cans, pesticides, medical waste, pharmaceuticals, body parts, plastic bottles, even vehicles.
A heavy dark smoke envelopes the living quarters and personnel – both military and civilian - breathe the choking noxious air round-the-clock.
Wilkins journey began after she visited the tiny Veterans Administration office in Tavares, Florida. Her husband, USAF Major Kevin Wilkins, had died of a brain tumor the month before.
A member of the 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, Maj. Wilkins was an RN stationed in Balad, Iraq beginning in May 2006. During a second tour in January 2007, he flew missions in and out of Qatar and then returned home.
Going in for a review at Florida Hospital Waterman, nurses noticed Wilkins did not react well to instructions on the laptop, his memory seemed slow. After his second tour, the headaches got severe. He started vomiting one morning and he and Jill went to the ER and got a CAT scan.
The doctor thought a brain mass might be an infection and asked ‘Have you been exposed to anything in Iraq?’ Jill says.
That’s when Kevin started talking about the burn pits.
A second CAT scan followed and the doctor called an ambulance and immediately took Kevin Wilkins to the hospital in Orlando. He had surgery Friday night, went into cardiac arrest on Sunday and on Tuesday, Wilkins was taken off the ventilator. He died at the age of 51.
The diagnosis - a glioblastoma - brain cancer. It is one of the symptoms on the list of the burn pit registry being collected by at Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY).
Jill Wilkins’ “cause” began at the VA office in Tavares, Florida. Jill told a clerk about the exchange with the doctor about burn pits. Come back when you have proof of what they put in the burn pits, she was told by the rude clerk.
“She made me feel like I was asking for something that I shouldn’t be asking for. That was the most horrible experience ever, I’m done,” she said to herself.
But she was not done.
A friend of a friend contacted CNN which shot a story with her on Wednesday and filed it on Friday. “I had my benefits within three weeks, that’s unheard of,” she says.
During this time period, her husband’s commander from Patrick Air Force Base began asking about the headaches. The doctor in the ER had suspected an environmental exposure. Jill was told about the Web site set up by Ms Sparky (Deborah Crawford, a former KBR employee). She began doing research into burn pits, searching VA documents. Through Ms Sparky, a disabled serviceman asked when Kevin died was he on active duty. Yes, she said. He had two days left.
“He said, Jill, he died within one year of his active service date, your claim will be processed. It’s a presumptive service death.”
A death within one year of active duty is called presumptive service connected. While it’s not known if this otherwise healthy man’s brain tumor came from burn pit exposure, the fact that his death occurred within one year of his last tour made the difference.
Major Wilkins’ second tour ended April 3, 2007, he died on April 1, 2008.
“Most people don’t know this. No one caught this. Even the lady at the VA’s office. Why didn’t she look at the dates?” Wilkins asks.
Wilkins thought getting the VA benefits would end her quest, but the help she received from a stranger only encouraged her more.
“I’ll never forget the day he sent that to me. Here’s this guy who doesn’t know me and he basically has just gotten me my VA benefits. My thought was, if I can help someone because they don’t know…”
A friend from church helped turn her passion into a Facebook page for others to find and share information.
Wilkins says her role is sometimes helping others connect the dots, sometimes playing mediator. One vet with skin lesions is put in touch with another who has skin sores. A lot of leukemia cases are coming in and almost all symptoms start with respiratory problems. “They get documents from each other and when they go to the doctor they have documents, they talk to each other,” she says.
“You get to a point with paperwork…I know of soldiers who are barely existing because they can’t work. Every day is a struggle. I feel horrible for them.”
Burn Pit Controversy
The VA still denies a link between burn pits and health effects but is backing away from the steadfast official denial. The senior health protection team says burn pits may pose some long-term medical problems, especially COPD and asthma, partially due to the number of veterans coming forward to report problems.
Dr. Robert Miller of Vanderbilt took the question one step further. The pulmonologist performed open lung biopsies on 49 service men and women who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan and found all but one had the identical findings of significant damage to the airwaves which were shutting down.
An Air Force Officer and environmental engineer, Darrin Curtis, in a December 2006 memo called the Balad acres-large pit “an acute health hazard.”
The Institute of Medicine will look at the link between the symptoms emerging and burn pit exposure over the next 18 months. That information could lead to some guidance on whether injured service men and woman should be provided military benefits.
KBR in a previous email told IB News, said it was not responsible for the burn pit in Balad. Washington, D.C. Attorney Elizabeth Burke says it is.
Burke and another law firm, Motley Rice (IB Partner), are waiting to do discovery on the case. Wilkins has joined the multidistrict litigation that will be heard in Maryland.
Still in Operation?
With discovery on hold, the question of how many burn pits are still in existence is an open one.
Contributors to Wilkins’ site have provided some answers the lawyers would like to have – Bob says Tikrit, Iraq (140 km northwest of Baghdad and birthplace of Saddam Hussein) still has a burn pit; another vet says Bakuba, Iraq, (30 mi NE of Baghdad also spelled Baqubah); Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, as of Oct 2009 still had a burn pit saya another; Taji Iraq, 20 miles north of Baghdad; Tallil Air Base 193 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq; and Camp Liberty, northeast of the Baghdad Airport, say respondents to Wilkins’ Facebook site.
Balad, the large base in Iraq where Wilkins was stationed, reportedly now has three or four incinerators.
Wilkins says she’s not angry at the military. KBR is another story.
During a November 2009 hearings on burn pits, former KBR contractor, Russell Keith, told his supervisors the pits were against regulations. Keith says he was told, “Keep your mouth shut and do what we tell you. We’ll be making enough to pay for fines and still make a profit. That makes me angry,” says Wilkins.
“I think things happen for a reason, you can only do wrong for so long and it will come back to you. It will come back to them," she says. #
(Correction- Wilkins did have surgery two days before he died. His review was by Florida Hospital Waterman, not the military)