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The Second Wave of Gulf War Illness

What really disgusts me about public figures and pols like Cindy McCain [1]and Sarah Palin getting all righteous (and possessive) about the welfare of the troops because they have sons at war is their platitudes and admonishments are pathetically partisan, empty, and devoid of any authentic will for improving conditions in-theater. And for years, we’ve been spoon-fed this “maverick” gruel, when I have yet to see John McCain, the supposed “military candidate,” get his hands soiled addressing the war’s dirtiest little secret: that the military, by privatizing nearly every aspect of this war and blatantly ignoring basic guidelines of public health and environmental safety, have put our soldiers’ lives and long-term health very much at risk.

We’ve heard about contaminated water at the bases [2], we’ve heard about poorly rigged showers electrocuting soldiers [3], now we hear that they’ve been burning amputated limbs, Styrofoam, unexploded munitions, rubber, medical waste and other toxins in open air pits at Base Balad and other military installations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

From an excellent article [4] by Kelly Kennedy at the Army Times (please read the entire piece for full impact, including the “plume crud” and other nasty symptoms plaguing men and women after they come home):

An open-air “burn pit” at the largest U.S. base in Iraq may have exposed tens of thousands of troops, contractors and Iraqis to cancer-causing dioxins, poisons such as arsenic and carbon monoxide, and hazardous medical waste, documentation gathered by Military Times shows.

The billowing black plume from the burn pit at 15-square-mile Joint Base Balad, the central logistics hub for U.S. forces in Iraq, wafts continually over living quarters and the base combat support hospital, sources say. (snip)

And even though the military now has three clean-burning incinerators operating there, officials acknowledged that as of midsummer, the burn pit still was taking in 147 tons of waste per day — significantly more than half the daily output at Balad, home to about 25,000 U.S. military personnel and several thousand contractors.

Balad’s average daily output of almost 250 tons of waste is three times higher than the average of 83 tons per day generated by the city of Juneau, Alaska, which has a comparable population. (snip)

The burn pit at Balad has consumed Styrofoam, unexploded ordnance, petroleum products, plastics, rubber, dining facility trash, paint and solvents, and medical waste, including amputated limbs, according to Curtis’ memo.

He said contaminants, many highly poisonous, that troops may have been exposed to include benzene, an aircraft fuel known to cause leukemia; arsenic; dichlorofluoromethane, or Freon; carbon monoxide; ethylbenzene; formaldehyde; hydrogen cyanide; nitrogen dioxide; sulfuric acid; and xylene.

“It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years,” Curtis wrote.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Pentagon was forced to admit — five years after the end of the first Persian Gulf War, and amid controversial claims of “Gulf War Illness,” the chronic symptoms and origins of which are still being debated (while veterans of that war continue to be very much sick) — that it may have exposed tens of thousands to nerve gas during the destruction of the Kamisiyah weapons depot in 1991 [5]. Meanwhile, multiple studies have found that widespread exposure to chemicals, pesticides and even the innoculations and pills issued by the U.S military could have led to varying ailments among Gulf War vets. [6] Now, frustrated sources inside the military tell me there is still institutional resistance to acknowledging the very real — and potentially massive — consequences of environmental exposures in this war.

John McCain has been in Washington for 26 years. To say in that time, “the maverick” couldn’t have challenged the Pentagon and made the safety of the troops fighting his wars a staple of his career is unreconcilable to me. If Barack Obama indeed wins this election, it is up to us, as responsible citizens and human beings, to insist he — and congress — address this issue with the commitment it deserves, for not just the current generation of veterans, but for any more, God forbid, to come.