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For years, the flames have lapped at the sky, sending thick, black plumes of smoke into the air above Balad Air Base in northern Iraq.

Defense officials initially insisted the smoke and fumes weren't a long-term health risk to the hundreds of thousands of military members who have served at Balad and other bases with similar open-air burn pits. Nonetheless, they quietly changed the rules about what could be burned in an effort to ensure the military's most toxic trash didn't go up in smoke.

Although defense health experts have now conceded that many service members may have been made sick by the fumes, the military is continuing to break its own rules and is continuing to expose its members to potentially toxic emissions, according to a federal audit released Friday.

The report, from the Government Accountability Office, also concluded U.S. military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to monitor burn pit emissions and have been slow to implement alternatives to open-air burning, such as filtered incinerators.

Finally, the report describes operations at four large military bases in Iraq where, investigators say, none of the active burn pits were in compliance with current environmental regulations.

"I wish I could say, 'Oh my. You're kidding. They're breaking the rules again?' but I'm really just sitting here thinking that nothing has changed," said Jill Wilkins, whose husband died days after being diagnosed with a brain tumor she believes may have been caused by his exposure to burn pit emissions during two tours of duty in Iraq.

Last year, the Florida woman began collecting stories on a Facebook page devoted to those exposed to burn pit fumes during their tours of duty.

Kathy Ogden, of East Millcreek, is also frustrated by the report's findings. Her husband, Jim, suffered a series of optic nerve strokes shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Balad in 2004. Jim Ogden was recently declared legally blind. The VA considers him "catastrophically disabled" — but does not provide compensation because it cannot establish a conclusive link between the condition and his service.

Ogden said her family isn't in need of the money, but as she has watched her husband's condition deteriorate, she worries about other veterans and their families.

Meanwhile, she laments, no one seems interested in finding out what caused her husband's condition.

"No one knows," she said. "We'd like to help someone figure it out — maybe that can help other people — but it just seems that no one is really that interested."

Military health officials initially denied any long-term health consequences were associated with burn pit exposure. But late last year, Craig Postlewaite, director of Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs, acknowledged for the first time that "it's quite plausible — in fact quite likely — that there are a small number of people that have been affected with longer-term health problems."

Postlewaite declined to say what diseases he believed were most likely tied to burn pit exposure. Other military health officials have since suggested that some respiratory illnesses have been caused by the pits.

Many military members and their families believe that's only the beginning. They have associated burn pit exposure with cancer, blood disease, skin conditions and leukemia.

"This is our generation's Agent Orange," Doug Butler, a case manager with the U.S. Air Force's Wounded Warrior program in San Antonio, wrote about Wilkins' burn pit site last month. Agent Orange was the name given to a mixture of herbicides used during the Vietnam War that has been blamed for various long-term illnesses.

Addressing that commonly made association during a visit to Salt Lake City in July, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told The Salt Lake Tribune the federal government did not adequately address military members' exposures to toxic exposures following Vietnam "the way that might have been and the way that should have been."

Yet even while acknowledging that many veterans waited for decades — and many died — before medical conditions were connected to exposure to Agent Orange, Shinseki defended a century-old standard requiring scientific proof before veterans can be compensated for their suffering.

"What we're trying to change is the opportunity to establish the connection," he said, noting that millions of federal dollars have been poured into research into military members who have been exposed to open-air burn pits.

Yet the audit shows the military has failed to collect the evidence it needs to draw any sort of cause-and-effect conclusions.

A 2009 Defense Department regulation ordered commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to systematically sample burn pit air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, dioxins, fine particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, hexachlorobenzene and volatile organic compounds. That is being done in neither theater of operation, according to the report.

"The health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, partly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures from burn pits," wrote the report's authors, who were led by GAO Director of Natural Resources and Environment David Trimble.

That's frustrating to Rosita Lopez-Torres, whose husband was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis after his tour of duty in Balad. She sees the failure to collect information as another obstacle that will delay care and compensation for thousands of affected military members.

"Time is of the essence," the Texas woman said, noting her husband's civilian doctor has diagnosed more than 50 other soldiers with the same condition, presumably related to burn pit exposure. "This is just one big nightmare for all of us."

Highlights from the report

In August, military officials estimated there were 251 burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq.

Burn pits examined at four bases were violating environmental rules, by actions such as burning plastic.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq do not sample or monitor burn pit emissions, as required by military regulations.

Source: Government Accountability Office