Jen Burch
Jen Burch
Wounded Warrior Project
(Photo Provided)

Jen Burch believes that one of the most effective ways she can advocate for military Veterans who feel alone in dealing with their Service-related health conditions is to share her own story – including her journey through the darkest moments of doubt and fear.

Burch’s story begins with her 6.5-year career as an operations manager in Civil Engineering for the U.S. Air Force. During this time, she had multiple assignments, one of which was a 7-month deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, beginning in late 2010. During this assignment, she volunteered to serve as a combat medic on the trauma team of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) medical unit.

Jen had aspirations of becoming a physician’s assistant, and during this deployment she excelled, earning Warfighter of the Month in a competition against hundreds of her peers. This assignment, however, also unfortunately exposed her to a wide range of toxins and airborne pollutants coming from open burn pits, an uncovered human waste pond, and other man-made exposures that were exacerbated by the dry, dusty conditions of Kandahar.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time, as we had much greater things to worry about, but when I returned home to Okinawa, I went straight from the airport to the emergency room,” Burch recalls.

Diagnosed with pneumonia, bronchitis, and other ailments, Burch at first assumed it was just exhaustion from her non-stop deployment. However, the avid long-distance runner soon developed chronic bronchitis, shortness of breath, and migraines.

“It was like my ‘check-engine’ light was on,” she said. “I was essentially falling apart, physically and mentally.”

Eventually, her problems became so severe that she attempted suicide in 2013. She later went on to be diagnosed with a benign ground glass nodule, pleural thickening, and chronic bronchiolitis.

Burch was not the only Service Member to become sick from toxic exposures; she recalls that many she served with during that deployment got sick immediately after their tour in Kandahar. She is one of the millions of U.S. Service Members deployed to the Southwest Asia Theater of Military Operations and Afghanistan, where many were likely exposed to toxic substances that are not well defined and whose health impacts remain poorly understood. Many Service Members report coming back sick after deployments to these areas, and some go on to develop life-altering chronic and, in some instances, fatal illnesses. Because the associated health outcomes and far-reaching impacts of these toxic exposures are not clearly defined, diagnosing and treating Service Members and Veterans with symptoms, diseases, and conditions can be challenging, leaving them and their families feeling isolated and overwhelmed.

Ultimately, it was the realization that Burch was not alone in her experiences that helped her find a new sense of purpose for her life. As part of her healing journey, Burch became an advocate, and she reflects that her brokenness is what led her to a pathway of healing.

“Each time I shared my story, one of those broken pieces would turn into peace,” Burch said. “Through that, I learned resiliency, self-advocacy, [and] that sometimes letting yourself fall apart is what’s necessary to rise and shine again. Getting a second chance at life [gave] me the courage to share the dark moments of my life to advocate for others who are not ready to share their story, so that they are not left behind nor feel alone in whatever they may be facing.”

Most recently, Burch advocated for the “Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022,” which significantly expands benefits and services for Veterans exposed to toxic substances and “is considered to be the most significant expansion of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care in 30 years,” Burch said. She participated in congressional roundtables and meetings alongside other Veterans’ advocates, spoke at press conferences, and wrote an opinion piece that was published on the news website The Hill. In August 2022, Burch joined her colleagues at the White House to watch President Biden sign the PACT Act into law.

Today, in addition to her role as a Government Affairs Specialist with the Wounded Warrior Project, Burch participates as a consumer programmatic reviewer for the Toxic Exposures Research Program (TERP). The TERP is a new, broad biomedical research program focused on improving our understanding of the pathobiology of toxic exposures and associated comorbidities, and accelerating the development of treatments, cures, and preventions for Service Members, Veterans, and/or the American public who have been, or could potentially be, impacted by toxic exposures.

Burch says the need for toxic exposure research is urgent. In her experience, physicians often lack the information to interpret the symptoms and manage the health outcomes Service Members and Veterans face as a result of their Service-related toxic exposures. As a result, many Service Members and Veterans go undiagnosed and/or misdiagnosed, and they live not only with their ongoing physical difficulties but also with the stress of their healthcare battles and of not knowing what is happening to their bodies.

Burch sees the TERP as an opportunity to support research that will inform other researchers and clinicians so that other Service Members, Veterans, and their families do not have to go through what she did when she came home from Afghanistan. She hopes that research supported by the TERP will also lead to greater protections for active-duty Service Members, thus “improving military health [which] impacts our readiness as a nation.”

Serving as a consumer programmatic reviewer for the TERP also helps Burch continue along her own personal pathway of healing, drawing inspiration from those who helped blaze the trail ahead of her.

“I look at the generation of military women before me and the obstacles they faced, and without their advocacy, I would have faced those same challenges,” Burch said. “Now it’s my turn to help pave the way for the next generation of Service Members, especially our women warriors.”

Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs PACT Act Resources

The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this paper are those of the author(s) and should not be construed as an official Department of the Army position, policy, or decision.

Last updated Tuesday, January 31, 2023