There are over 60,000 U.S. veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are now sick and dying. But the Pentagon denies there is such a health crisis, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is denying these suffering men and women the benefits they desperately need and deserve.
These veterans are not the victims of enemy fire. They are suffering from medical ailments associated with the open-air burn pits that were constructed on over 230 military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan. These fiery pits, which were hastily dug in violation of the military’s own health and environmental regulations, were used to dispose of the mountains of trash created by war. Every type of refuse imaginable was thrown into these burn pits, including such toxic materials as plastics, metals, medical waste, batteries, tires, old ordnance and even human body parts.
The open-air burn pits were massive in size — some as large as 10 acres — and many were built in close proximity to where military members were housed. They burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with each pit incinerating as much as 50 tons of trash a day. Soldiers stationed on these bases grew accustomed to the black plumes that filled the sky and the clouds of ash that sometimes enveloped them. The noxious pollutants wafted everywhere in these camps. In a desperate effort to block the foul-smelling fallout, some soldiers blocked the vents in their barracks with towels when they went to sleep, waking in the morning to see the once-white towels blackened with soot.
The burn pits were built and operated by KBR, which was then a subsidiary of Halliburton, the huge energy services company once headed by former Vice President Dick Cheney. For seven years, the pits went completely unregulated, seemingly exempt from all government oversight. Only after service members barraged their representatives in the Senate and Congress with complaints did the Government Accountability Office launch an investigation into the burn pits, finally prompting the Defense Department to put in place pollution-control measures in 2009. During that investigation, the GAO discovered that the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan were releasing over 1,000 toxins and carcinogens into the air.
Many doctors and environmental scientists have voiced concerns about the open-air burn pits, which operated in violation of EPA regulations and in fact would never have been permitted in the United States. One medical researcher, Anthony Szema, a professor at New York’s Stony Brook University Medical School and a former Veterans Health Administration physician, has conducted numerous studies on the health effects from burn pit exposure. In one such study, Dr. Szema found that among 15,000 soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who were exposed to pollution from the burn pits, 70 percent complained of respiratory problems. A separate report conducted for the U.S. Central Command in 2006 by Lieutenant Colonel Darren Curtis, an environmental scientist with the U.S. Air Force, stated, “There is an acute health hazard for individuals and the possibility of chronic health hazards associated with the smoke from the burn pits.”
Some burn pits proved particularly damaging to the health of service members. These were the pits located on U.S. military bases that were constructed on the ruins of former Iraqi military bases that were leveled by U.S. bombs. At least five of those former Iraqi bases housed chemical weapons storage facilities containing old stockpiles of mustard and sarin gas produced by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s and ’90s.
According to chemical weapons experts I have interviewed, these toxic stockpiles were blown up during the U.S. bombardment of the Iraqi bases, contaminating the ground where military contractor KBR later dug some of its burn pits. Retired Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Rick Lamberth, who oversaw construction of some of those military bases for KBR, said his former employer “knew the ground was hot” (meaning it was contaminated) when they were building bases like Camp Taji, where old chemical weapons stockpiles were later found by the U.S. military. Lamberth told me that KBR didn’t take any soil samples or test for ground contamination prior to or during construction of the base and its burn pits. Now, many veterans who served at Camp Taji and other bases in Iraq that were former chemical weapons bases are showing signs of mustard gas exposure, for which the Pentagon has no official explanation.
Soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began complaining as early as 2004 to the Veterans Health Administration, the vast medical network operated by the VA, about illnesses they felt were related to burn pit exposure. I began researching these complaints in 2011 after receiving a phone call from a former solider who had served at Camp Taji. Throughout our conversation, I heard him wheezing and coughing, until he finally was wracked by a coughing fit that lasted for minutes. When he finally recovered, he said, “Excuse me, I brought some of the burn pit back from Iraq with me.”
It was the first time I had heard of the burn pits, though I was a Marine and Army veteran who had served around the world. The phone call set me on a journey to find out more about the health problems that my caller said were afflicting many of those with whom he had served in Iraq. I spent the next four years researching the burn pits and their victims, conducting over 1,000 interviews with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with numerous scientists and medical experts. These veterans were convinced there was a link between their serious health problems — which included rare respiratory ailments as well as cancer — and the burn pits. Every expert I interviewed who had studied the widespread complaints came to the same conclusion.
None of the ill and dying soldiers I spoke with are well known; they performed their service for their country with the usual anonymity of rank-and-file soldiers. But the burn pits might well have claimed the life of at least one celebrated veteran: Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden, who served as major with the Army National Guard at two Iraq bases, Camp Liberty and Joint Air Base Balad, both of which had massive burn pits in close proximity to where soldiers slept, ate and worked. Prior to his deployment, Major Biden was declared perfectly healthy, easily passing the Army physical fitness test and an extensive health examination. But eight months after Major Biden returned home from Iraq, his health started to deteriorate. He began suffering from headaches and numbness in his limbs, often feeling fatigued and weak. In August 2013, Biden was diagnosed with brain cancer, an illness that eventually took his life in May 2015, at age 46.
There is not enough evidence to link Beau Biden’s cancer directly to his burn pit exposure. But I found that Biden was among a cluster of cancer victims who had served at Camp Liberty and Balad. I was shocked to learn that, among the 112 service members and military contractors I interviewed who served at these two bases, 31 later developed different forms of cancers and brain tumors.
Dr. Szema’s research suggests there could be a relation between this high incidence of cancer and the burn pits. His research team conducted lung biopsies on several former service members who were stationed at Camp Victory, and very high levels of titanium were found in all of the veterans’ lungs. Dr. Szema strongly believes the titanium dust particles found in the soldiers came directly from the burn pits. Titanium has been listed by the National Institutes of Health as a possible carcinogen.
One former VA official has called the burn pits crisis the “Agent Orange scandal” of our day. But as with the widespread health problems associated with Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military over much of the Vietnam jungles during the war there, the Pentagon and the VA once again are proving stubbornly reluctant to acknowledge their responsibility for the extensive damage done to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by the burn pits. The Veterans Health Administration has denied burn pit victims disability benefits, telling veterans their illnesses are not service-connected, despite a growing body of medical evidence to the contrary.
It took 27 years before the U.S. military finally acknowledged the truth about Agent Orange and began giving benefits to Vietnam War veterans damaged by chemical warfare. By then thousands had already died. Once again veterans who bravely served their country are suffering the same sort of double betrayal by their commanders — exposed to harmful chemical agents, not on the battlefield, but in their own barracks, and then abandoned when they fell ill.
Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be forced to wait decades for help like Vietnam vets were. They need help now.