By Andy Ouriel
For The REVIEW TIMES
COLUMBUS — Danielle Robinson never imagined how devastating her husband’s military service would be to her family.
“No one thought the war would come home with us and that we would be battling it here,” said Danielle, a 2003 Sandusky High School graduate.
Her husband, Heath Robinson, suffers from a rare form of cancer caused by his exposure to burn pits during his 13 months in Iraq while serving as a medic with the Ohio Army National Guard.
Heath represents one of an unknown number of service members exposed to toxic smoke emanating from enormous burn pits the military used to dispose of every material imaginable. The items disposed in the burn pits included chemical weapons, computer hardware, human remains, medical waste, asbestos, pesticides, paint cans, fuels, and other items.
The military maintained dozens of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan — many near the bases where soldiers lived or worked — and there was a steady stream of toxic smoke coming from them. Some are still in use today.
In late 2016, almost 10 years after he returned from overseas, doctors diagnosed Heath with a rare autoimmune disorder, called mucous membrane pemphigoid, a group of rare chronic autoimmune disorders.
“It’s normally seen in elderly females and not 34-year-old men,” said Heath, who was born in the Columbus area and lives in a nearby suburb with Danielle and their daughter, Brielle, 6.
“I was very healthy and into fitness. I was working out vigorously,” said Heath, who twice won the state’s Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year award, given to those who display remarkable physical and mental toughness.
While training for half-marathons, in 2016, Heath experienced shortness of breath and other strange medical conditions not normal for an athlete in his condition.
“I told my wife something doesn’t feel right,” Heath said. “My body wasn’t recovering the way it was supposed to. My body felt like it was fighting the flu all the time.”
Heath’s doctors linked his illness to the burn pits.
Fast-forward to today, and his health has deteriorated to a point where he needs oxygen on a 24/7 basis.
“I’m about to pass out after hiking up two flights of stairs,” said Heath, who sleeps at least half the day. “I need to sit down when I shower because it gets really steamy in there, and I have a hard time breathing. I also can’t stand for more than 5 minutes.”
Proud to serve
Heath is extremely proud of his military career — and, to this day, isn’t bitter about what happened.
“I love my service,” said Heath, who was a member of the 811th Engineers Unit and the 216th Engineers Battalion. “I don’t regret any of my time in the service. They gave me a platform to shine. I’ve made many friends through the military.”
Though the 38-year-old veteran remains concerned. Heath, who retired in November on Veterans Day, still worries about other soldiers in a similar predicament because of burn pit exposure.
“With my situation, I’m still being taken care of. Everything is being paid for (by the military), but I would like to see that for others who aren’t as fortunate,” Heath said. “I was fortunate. This happened to me while I was on active duty. I had the background and the support staff to help me through it. There are a lot of soldiers who don’t have that and are struggling.”
Danielle, who’s maiden name is Kaufman, along with her mother, Sandusky resident Susan Zeier, have both advocated for other military personnel also suffering from burn pit exposure. Danielle said it hit home with her when she read the book “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.”
“I was really angry when I read the book,” Danielle, 34, said. “Halliburton, (one of the world’s largest oil field service companies) profited off of this. And they point the finger at the Department of the Defense, and DOD points the finger back at them.”
Before he became vice president, Dick Cheney served as CEO at Halliburton. Additionally, Cheney was an architect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“No one is taking blame for what happened,” Heath said. “The buck keeps getting passed, and no one is taking accountability.”
On Friday, Heath broke his silence, speaking to the Sandusky Register about his life and impending death. Before he retired, Heath felt limited in what he could say.
Advocates for military personnel with burn pit-related illnesses contend the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration are just waiting for Heath, and others like him, to die.
“They are postponing doing anything about it,” Heath said. “They don’t want to have to deal with it. They are waiting for as many people to fall off as possible.”
Zeier has lobbied Congress for more than two years. She’s asked representatives and senators to create legislation that would track and treat veterans suffering from illness related to toxic exposure.
“Why wouldn’t we be out here fighting for these soldiers who have fought for us?” Zeier said. “I feel it’s my duty now to serve them. But this has been so, so frustrating.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has been responsive, Zeier said. Brown, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, repeatedly asked for hearings on burn pits. Brown wants Heath, others like him and their physicians to testify before the committee in Washington, D.C.
The House and Senate, however, have been slow to act. Brown finally convinced the committee chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, to schedule a hearing in 2019. But Isakson, with no reason given, barred veterans from testifying.
It’s clear why veterans should testify, Heath said.
The committee “needs to realize that their decisions affect the lives of individuals,” Heath said. “One ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote for them can drastically change an individual’s life, like my own. Individuals who put their life on the line are now paying for it, unfortunately, in ways that were not expected. No one expected burn pits would have such an effect on soldiers.”
Zeier said the DOD and VA need to step up and take responsibility. According to her, it starts with acknowledging the illnesses, building a database with names of afflicted veterans and providing full medical coverage to all military members, in any situation, who are suffering.
Fighting for his family
Although his condition is debilitating, Heath said he doesn’t want to die.
“My main goal is to hang on as long as I can to see my daughter get older,” Heath said. “She is my main inspiration for pushing on. But (my condition) does affect my relationship with my daughter. It bothers me a lot. I need to get better for her.”
Heath — who’s undergoing chemotherapy today, his last option after other immunodeficiency treatments began to fail — said he wants to watch his daughter get married. But he knows that’s unlikely to happen.
“I thought I would beat this,” Heath said. “I thought I would get back to work. I wanted to treat this. But we haven’t, and I don’t know how long I have left.”
Zeier works with Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit veterans organization dedicated to outreach and advocacy efforts related to burn pits. She urges anyone who supports veterans and the military to contact their federal representatives and demand accountability from the DOD and the VA.
That starts, Zeier said, with the veterans’ affairs committees in the House and Senate scheduling hearings so committee members can be fully informed and enact legislation supporting victims.
“This is just like it was with Agent Orange in Vietnam,” Zeier said.
The U.S. military used the chemical known as Agent Orange in an attempt to destroy North Vietnam’s farming industry. The pesticide poisoned thousands of Vietnam-era veterans, and it took years for legislation to get enacted, recognizing those illnesses.
“Burn pit veterans and victims deserve to be treated and cared for just as the same as our men and women in service who are injured or killed on the battlefield,” Zeier said. “Their wounds have come from war.”