Shortly before taking off on the “Snowball Express” plane Thursday with her granddaughter, Anna Lee, Alice Daniel talked about her son and his death following his return from Iraq.
“Austin always had a smile on his face; he always made people smile. He absolutely adored Anna Lee,” Alice Daniel said in a brief interview. “He was an incredible soldier.”
But when he returned from Iraq, he had a cough that wouldn’t go away, Daniel said, and he got very sick once while he was in Iraq.
“When he came home we thought we were home free,” Daniel said, because they had already survived the tour of duty of their other son, Randy Daniel, who served in the Marines right after the war.
She blames Austin Daniel’s death on exposure to harmful chemicals released from open-air burn pits that were used in Iraq.
“They burned everything … garbage, body parts, medical waste, tires, everything,” she said. “The guys were coming home with respiratory problems and cancers, mostly blood cancers.
“He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s in 2008 — it is very treatable. We hadn’t even heard of the burn pits.”
He underwent chemotherapy for that at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in January and was cancer-free after the first of six treatments, she said.
“Because of his immune deficiency from the burn pit — he never could recuperate from the chemo and that is what got him,” Daniel said.
Austin Daniel died of heart failure on Sept. 7, 2009, leaving behind a 26-year-old widow and 22-month-old Anna Lee, his mother wrote in a military blog discussing burn pit issues.
On May 28, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed SB538, authored by Sen. John Smith, known as the Staff Sgt. William Austin Daniel Military Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry Act of 2014.
The bill was modeled after a 1985 registry to notify Vietnam veterans of the ongoing health complications of exposure to Agent Orange, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, ischemic heart disease, prostate cancer and a number of other serious medical issues.
Since 1985, according to the bill, many Gulf War-era and post-9/11 veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn are suffering from illnesses that may have been caused by exposure to open-air burn pits. Many open-air burn pits were operated close to where many soldiers were housed during wartime, the bill says.
The bill created a voluntary registry of self-identifying service members. The registry will be managed by the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, which will inform those registered about recent scientific developments on the effects of exposure, availability of possible treatments, applying for service-connected disability compensation benefits with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other issues related to exposure to burn pits.
“It’s a way to make something good come out of something very tragic,” Daniel said. “Other young men and women will know there is a possibility that their immune systems may have been compromised and they can tell their doctors. He would be proud.”