NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Doctors are diagnosing dozens of Fort Campbell soldiers with severe breathing problems and lung damage that has no known cure.
A NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed that Vanderbilt doctors believe thousands of other soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk.
They are returning from their tours of duty with an invisible injury that standard Army tests have not detected.
"I have a hard time breathing," said Sgt. Brent Michaels.
Michaels is a Fort Campbell soldier who uses an inhaler and has trouble doing his job repairing black hawk helicopters.
"I didn't think I would be a 27-year-old man that can't play with his 6-year-old kid," Michaels said.
Sgt. Michaels is not alone. Dozens of soldiers from Fort Campbell have the same breathing problems and have been unable to pass a basic physical exam that requires a two mile run.
"There's something here that's probably going to take my life earlier than what I intended," said Sgt. Adam Cox.
Cox served in the same unit as Michaels. The two serve in an aviation regiment with the 101st Airborne. They were both part of the initial push into Iraq in 2003.
"It's scary because I don't know what's going on with me or how much worse it's going to get," said Michaels.
As their unit made its push into Iraq in 2003, they encountered a huge sulfur plant fire outside Mosul.
A YouTube video shows soldiers wearing gas masks at their camp, called Q-West, which was several miles from the fire. The sulfur fire burned for weeks spreading toxic smoke for miles.
Cox remembered the smell.
"Whenever the wind shifted just right it covered the entire post there," Cox said.
When the soldiers came home, many began complaining of shortness of breath, but military tests showed nothing was wrong.
The Army sent some of the soldiers to Vanderbilt.
"After we saw a few of them we became very concerned that these previously elite athletes could no longer run two miles," said Vanderbilt Dr. Robert Miller.
Miller was the first to order an unusual test. He called for lung biopsies which require major surgery. Doctors remove a portion of the lung and look at it under a microscope. The results showed severe damage to small passage ways in the lungs. The damage was not being detected by standard tests.
"What he's finding is damage to our lungs not just me, but everybody that I know," said Sgt. Michaels.
Miller said the breathing problems are affecting many more soldiers than just those in the 101st exposed to the sulfur fire.
"A lot of us have concerns that the there are a number of exposures in both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Miller said.
Miller is concerned about burn pits. YouTube videos show how many army camps disposed of their trash by burning it in pits.
Some of the burn pits were 10 acres long. They were on the outskirts of most camps, and soldiers said they burned any kind of waste you can think of.
"You're exposing them to things that would be outlawed in every city in this country. I think this is going to be the big medical diagnosis of this war," Miller said.
Miller believes thousands of soldiers may have permanent lung damage. He hopes the military is ready to recognize the injury.
Cox said despite what has happened to him, he has no regrets about serving his country.
"I would do it again in a minute, as fast as a heartbeat can happen," Cox said.
Now he hopes his country will care for him.
"I wouldn't want to think the army would turn their back on something like this in this day and age," Cox said.
The following is the U.S. Army's response to our questions concerning soldiers from the 101st exposed to the sulfur fire and soldiers exposed to burn pits who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The response comes from the U.S. Army Public Health Command and Public Affairs Officer Lyn Kukral:
"We considered the potential health risk from exposure to the sulfur fire sufficient to attempt to evaluate the occurrence of respiratory conditions in those who were identified to have been within 50 km of the fire. Our study did not find an increase in respiratory health outcomes in those potentially exposed to the fire as compared to those deployed elsewhere during the time, or those deployed to that location at a different time. However, we recognized that all individuals in the group considered 'exposed' to the fire may not have had the same degree of exposure, and this may have made it more difficult to detect the outcome, if it was there.
"We have reviewed the records from the Vanderbilt study, and we have considered the findings in those individuals to be a plausible outcome due to sulfur fire exposure. By 'plausible outcome,' we mean that the medical literature supports a possible association between the exposure to sulfur dioxide from the fire and breathing problems. Some of Dr. Miller's patients did not have a history of exposure to the sulfur fire or were deployed at some other time or location, which suggests that their respiratory condition is related to a different exposure.
"Trash burning at some locations, high sand and dust levels at nearly all locations, and other potential exposures may also contribute to respiratory conditions in some deployed Service Members. We have several studies in progress to see if the rates of certain respiratory conditions increase following deployment.
"The sampling effort we and the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine conducted at one of the burn pits (Balad) did not identify a clear health risk, but there were scientific limitations to that study that make it impossible to state that no health effects will occur.
"We and DOD continue to evaluate the impact of particulate matter, burn pits and deployment in general on the risk of respiratory and other conditions. DOD recognizes that acute symptoms due to smoke exposure may occur, including reddened eyes, irritated respiratory passages, and cough that may persist for some time. It is plausible that some Service Members may be affected by longer-term health effects, possibly due combined exposures (such as sand/dust, industrial pollutants, tobacco, smoke and other agents) and individual susceptibilities such as pre-existing health conditions or genetic factors. The DOD is continuing to reduce exposures to burn pit smoke through the installation of incinerators and other means, and to study the makeup of the smoke and the health conditions of our Service Members to determine the extent of any long-term health risks that may exist.
"Whether any condition is a likely result of military service is an assessment made by the Army Physical Disability Agency, and not the Army Public Health Command. This agency is part of the Army Human Resources Command. Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs can determine that certain conditions be considered under 'Presumptive Disability.'
"Presumptive Disability means that specific conditions Service Members did not have prior to joining the service are presumed to have a service connection."