At the start of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military commanders were faced with a seemingly mundane problem: how to dispose of the wreckage created by bombs and battle, and the waste created by more than 100,000 military personnel. This soon became a serious issue — every soldier was said to be producing an average of 10 pounds of trash per day — and the DOD decided to construct open-air burn pits on military bases to incinerate the trash.
The Pentagon contracted the firm Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) to get the job done, and by May of 2003, there were more than 270 burn pits operating on military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the pits were massive — some as large as 10 acres, burning more than 50 tons of trash a day. Most pits operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in close proximity to where service members slept and worked. The acrid smoke and ash from the pits was a constant annoyance to soldiers.
From 2002 until 2009, there was no regulation for what could or could not be burned. And so KBR burned Styrofoam, plastics, tires, pesticide containers, batteries, medical waste, and even human body parts. According to a 2010 Government Accountability Report, more than 1,000 known toxins and carcinogens were burned in the pits.
As early as 2004, US veterans returning home from the wars began to get sick. Their symptoms often started out as annoyances — constant congestion, endlessly runny noses. But the symptoms didn't always go away; instead, they would get worse, leading to shortness of breath, constant pain, and an inability to work.
For the sickest vets, there were diagnoses of cancer. And, eventually, death.
Thousands of men and women were getting sick because of their exposure to the burn pits; over the past few years, I've spoken with about 150 of them. The Department of Defense (DOD), however, denied the burn pits were a health hazard, blocked veterans from getting the medical assistance and compensation they needed, and shielded KBR.
Lawyers believe this is a coordinated legal strategy, creating a legal limbo in which no one can be held accountable.
Military service members started to become ill with rare and mysterious bronchial diseases and cancers. These veterans — the vast majority of whom were completely healthy before deploying — came to believe their illnesses were caused from their exposure to the burn pits, but when they sought treatment at Veteran's Administration (VA) hospitals and filed for disability benefits, the DOD denied that the pits were a hazard, and the VA sided with the DOD. Almost every veteran who sought benefits based on exposure to burn pits had his or her claim denied. It is hard to prove a war injury not created by a bullet or grenade.
Veterans decided to take legal action. Because of a federal law known as the Farris Doctrine, military members and veterans cannot sue the Pentagon for compensation for injury or death. So many veterans decided to join a class-action lawsuit and sue KBR, alleging that the contractor knew it had constructed the burn pits too close to where soldiers were housed and knew that what was being burned was hazardous. KBR, however, claims that the military chose both the locations of the burn pits and the makeup of what was burned. The DOD is staying silent on the issue, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with KBR. Many lawyers I interviewed who are familiar with the case believe this is a coordinated legal strategy; it creates a legal limbo in which no one can seemingly be held accountable.
Fourteen years after the wars began, there are tens of thousands of veterans who are still sick. Many of them are dying from what they believe was their exposure to the burn pits. Very few have received benefits from the VA for their illnesses. Many are so sick they can't work and are going broke. DOD officials have done nothing to help them.
A clear pattern has emerged regarding these illnesses, and the VA should acknowledge that pattern and take action. The DOD must take responsibility and stop denying its involvement in creating the burn pits, admitting there were health hazards associated with exposure. And KBR must provide compensation to sick veterans. It is what's owed to the service members who selflessly went to war on behalf of the United States.
Former Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman is author of the new book The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers. Follow him on Twitter: @JosephHickman0
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