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Before Penn graduate student Chad Baer was deployed to Djibouti with the Army National Guard, he could run two miles in 14 minutes and 15 seconds. But after being exposed to noxious fumes due to living downstream from an incinerator, he soon developed asthma.

“By the end of my deployment I ran it in like 18:30 — because I was wheezing and I couldn't finish my run,” said Baer, who is expecting a Master's in Public Administration at the Fels Institute of Government in 2020.

Inspired by the health issues he developed after his deployment, Baer is now creating a system that will help identify veterans who could potentially suffer from environment-related issues due to overseas military service. Baer created the proposal as part of his work with the Student Veteran Fellowship, a collaboration between the VFW and the nonprofit Student Veterans of America, and will present his proposal to politicians on Capitol Hill.

In his proposed registry, Baer will obtain data from the Department of Defense to determine the former location of deployed veterans. The system will allow veterans who were deployed to submit information to the registry that lists the health problems they are experiencing. This way, the system can identify a pattern of veterans who were deployed at the same place and time, who also share the same symptoms. Once a pattern is established in the database, veterans in the same situation will be alerted by the system if they need to be checked by a doctor because of their symptoms.

The system will be especially helpful for veterans who were exposed to burn pits, open-air sites on military bases where trash is burned, which is a common occurrence in overseas bases. Research has shown the possibility of long-term health effects from fume exposure.

Although Baer dealt with health issues because of his base's proximity to an incinerator, he said his problems were “very minor” compared to other veterans who were exposed to other noxious fumes from burn pits.

Jesse Hamilton, an Army veteran and graduate student a Master's in Liberal Arts for 2019, was frequently around burn pits for waste disposal when he was deployed in Fallujah, Iraq.

Photo from Chad Baer

“We burned everything in our burn pit,” Hamilton said. “It was this big pit in the corner of our compound and I think there was a refrigerator, there was a destroyed vehicle, and trash, electronics, and we would douse all of that in diesel fuel and set fire to it.” 

Patrick Murray, a Marine Corps veteran and deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars national legislative service, had nearly the same experience as Hamilton when he was deployed in Fallujah.

“We’d use plastic bags to go to the bathroom in and then put them in a pile, pour diesel fuel on top of them and burn them,” Murray said, adding that burn pits are common in places where veterans are frequently deployed, including Afghanistan and Kosovo.

To investigate who is affected by burn pit-related illnesses, Baer wants to change the Veteran Affairs' current burn pit registry to make it more "user friendly" through his software.

“This is something that we can get ahead of, as opposed to tracking down dying veterans when they're in their 70s,” Murray said. “Let's get them now, so that if these illnesses don't end up killing them, they should get treated and hopefully resolved.”

In the next part of Baer's fellowship, he will travel to Capitol Hill in the coming months to present his proposal.

“I am confident his proposal will be well received," Murray said. “There are far too many veterans that are affected by this and over the years enough attention has been paid to this issue that people are starting to open their eyes."