Dr. Robert Miller sits in an exam room at Vanderbilt University Hospital. Miller believes the high rates of respiratory and neurological ailments among U.S. troops are a result of the inhalation of microscopic dust particles in Iraq, which have been found to be laden with toxic metals, bacteria and fungi. (Maxine Park / USA Today)
WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials this week took down then relaunched a balky new website for veterans who may have been exposed to waste burn pits, but some veterans say they still can’t sign up.
Some bases in Iraq and Afghanistan burned as much as 240 tons of trash a day in an open pit. The site allows anyone who believes he or she was exposed to fumes from trash burned in those pits, or to other toxins — such as metal, bacteria or particulate matter, inhaled with the dust — to register that exposure with the VA.
Spc. Andrea Neutzling, a former Army reservist who served at Camp Bucca, Iraq, as a military intelligence specialist in 2005 and 2006, said she spent at least one day a month in the camp’s burn pit burning papers.
“I got to see firsthand what all was dumped into our camp pit,” Neutzling said. “I started having breathing issues my first winter back from Iraq.”
While Neutzling was able to register after an hour spent on the new site , she said she could not fix incorrect data about the dates she was in the military.
“Trying to register takes a long time, and the page crashes all the time,” Richard Gutierrez posted on the Wounded Warrior Project’s Facebook page Friday.
“What a crock,” Joel DeLand wrote. “I can’t get past the deployment page because they have it all messed up and won’t let me change it. Typical VA.”
“Wow. Even the link gives you the run-around,” Dan Longenberger wrote. “It takes you to the site, you click on the link there and then you’re basically in an infinite loop.”
“Tried three times now,” Joseph Cormier posted Saturday. “The website is nonhelpful.”
VA officials said they were looking into the situation Tuesday.
“The Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry is currently online and operational, but as we increase capacity, we may conduct system maintenance to make necessary updates,” VA spokeswoman Walinda West said Tuesday, adding that the updates could cause some lag time.
Last week, 376 servicemembers out of 11,368 were wrongly told they were ineligible before the site was taken down to address the problem, West said.
The site was back up again Friday afternoon, as West said it was expected to be, but veterans trying to register over the weekend reported long waits, broken links and frustration.
Others became stuck trying to create a password, or, when they were able to enter the new password, encountered a page that said access is “forbidden.”
The registry is open to anyone who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was stationed in Djibouti after Sept. 1, 2001, or who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and may have been exposed to oil fires and dust. Registrants may also request a free medical exam.
West said that the VA is working to authenticate veterans’ deployment information, and that the authentication information comes in batches. Veterans who are deployed now or recently returned may have to wait at least 90 days after the end of their deployment to enroll.
In the first five days the site was up, more than 7,000 veterans visited it. The site allows the VA to gather data, but also provides a way for veterans to show they were exposed should more information about deployment hazards become available.
Hundreds of veterans have been diagnosed with lung problems, neurological disorders and cancers, and researchers believe those ailments could be connected to the dust or smoke from the burn pits.