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Burn Victims

Toxic exposure torments soldiers long after their tours end.

Retired Sgt. Michael Maynard can no longer feel his feet. He began to notice the problem four years ago while working as an air-traffic control specialist in the Army. After a year at Camp Taji in Iraq, Maynard took off his boots one night and found that a hot piece of metal had slipped inside—hot enough to tear away his skin. Somehow he hadn’t felt it.

By the time another year had passed, Maynard was back home in Indiana, confined to a wheelchair. Today, at age 49, he needs heavy braces to help him stand.

“With his muscles degenerating … he keeps falling,” his wife Maria says. “He’s a mess. I am constantly worried about him.”

Department of Veterans Affairs doctors were flummoxed by his condition, finally diagnosing rheumatoid fibromyalgia. But Maynard’s own neurologist believes his condition is the result of nerve damage caused by toxic exposure.

He is not alone. Michael Maynard is one among thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of veterans suffering from what growing anecdotal and scientific evidence indicates is chronic illness due to inhaling poisonous emissions from the massive burn pits at Army installations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Defense is having a hard time managing this story, which echoes the infamous Vietnam-era Agent Orange scandal and Gulf War Syndrome. (There still has been no official admission that symptoms of the latter are service-related.)

The Pentagon insists that burn pits pose no long-term health risks. But this summer, an Army research article surfaced that suggests otherwise, and individual physicians are now saying that the type of heart and lung damage they see among returning soldiers can only be explained by prolonged exposure to toxic emissions. One soldier stationed in Hawaii was told by Army doctors that his cystic lung disease and shrinking abdominal aorta were probably related to his burn-pit exposure at Camp Speicher in Iraq. He is believed to be the first to have the link officially documented.

As of 2008, of the nearly 500,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who had sought healthcare through the Veterans Administration since the war on terror began, 20 percent had respiratory diseases, 36 percent suffered diseases of the nervous system, 17 percent reported circulatory illness, and 42 percent exhibited “symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions.” Outwardly, the Army has been cool in its response; behind the scenes it is struggling to get ahead of these damaging reports, according to sources who spoke to TAC on the condition of anonymity.

But you don’t have to tell Michael Maynard what to think about the noxious black cloud that used to hover over Taji’s airfield. “The smoke got so bad sometimes that we had to reroute traffic or close down traffic,” he says. At times, “our lungs and our throats were just burning and it felt like something was crawling all over our skin. … Frankly, I don’t think anyone had any clue about what they were dumping in there.”

As more stories like Maynard’s emerge, perhaps the better question is what wasn’t thrown into those yawning open-air trash heaps? The massive fires reportedly burned hazardous waste (including, by some accounts, amputated limbs and used hypodermic needles), hardware, Styrofoam, lithium batteries, rubber, dining-hall refuse, petroleum products, pressure-treated wood, plastics, animal carcasses, latrine waste, aluminum cans, and unexploded ordnance. Maynard points out that pre-invasion, Taji was a chemical-weapons plant and munitions and tank-maintenance facility. There was a lot of “cleaning up” when the 1st Calvary Division took over in April 2004. Everything was “must go.”

“I was told the pit was safe, but we all joked we would wind up with cancer,” retired U.S. Air Force Sgt. Jon Vance wrote recently in the growing ad hoc registry at the Burn Pits Action Center (www.BurnPits.org). In 2005, he was stationed at Balad Air Base, which at its peak was burning up to 250 tons of waste a day.

“I saw furniture, computers, trucks, etc. being burned. I believe they burned some really nasty stuff in that pit,” Vance says. He now suffers from “a continuous dry cough along with pain in every joint, headaches, diminished lung capacity, memory loss, and a constant metallic taste in my mouth.”

Army Sgt. Michael Moore, 30, tells TAC he recently had facial and reconstructive airway surgery to correct sleep apnea. He still wakes up violently every night gasping for breath and fears that one night he won’t wake up at all. The Georgia resident recalls “all kinds of crazy stuff” being tossed into the pit at Balad, a base that can house some 30,000 personnel at any one time. He served there from 2005-06. “We asked them about it, and they said it was only trash they burned.”

Disabled American Veterans has so far collected more than 400 stories from veterans, most of whom suffer from respiratory illnesses, a smaller fraction from cancer.

Patrick Campbell, who served in Iraq as an Army National Guard medic, now advances policy on Capitol Hill for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. While sprawling bases like Balad have since acquired new incinerators to reduce the smoke, he said that pits are still operating freely at other installations, “burning a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be burned.”

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are trying to stave off a potential public-relations nightmare and, worse, a force-wide health disaster. Added to the other healthcare issues facing the more than 950,000 (and counting) returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the total long-term cost of the two wars could be as high as $3 trillion, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes predicted in 2008.

“To me, personally, [the resistance] is about the money, it’s about paying those sick soldiers,” says Moore. Besides the sleep apnea, he has the breathing capacity of an old man and “abnormal” scarring on his lungs.

An Air Force study of the Balad pit conducted in 2006 by Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis, who said one of his research mates called it “the worst environmental site I have ever personally visited,” listed a number of possible contaminants at the site based on the trash, including arsenic, benzene (which comes from aircraft fuel and is linked to leukemia), carbon monoxide, cancer-causing sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, and various metals.

Burning garbage in pits is not new; it has long been the only effective way to get rid of waste in a war zone. But as Curtis wrote in 2006, “today’s solid waste contains materials that were not present in the past that can create hazardous compounds.” Unlike in past wars, the pits today are not quick fixes. They’ve been burning as long as the wars themselves.

“In my professional opinion there is an acute health hazard for individuals … also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke,” Curtis concluded. “It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years, without significant engineering controls being put into place.” Especially since, as Curtis noted, “the burn pit at Balad … has been identified as a health hazard for several years in numerous after-action reports.”

Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy unearthed the memo in 2008, much to the Army’s chagrin. At that time, sick veterans were beginning to ask questions and had started networking online. Kennedy also reported that the Army’s Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (CHPPM) and the Air Force Institute for Operational Health had conducted their own assessments at Balad after the Curtis memo had gone up the chain of the command in 2007. They found that dioxins (hazardous toxic chemicals) were at 51 times acceptable levels, exposure to particulate matter at 50 times acceptable levels.

The military swiftly downplayed the paper, saying that a “software error” had produced erroneous numbers for the dioxins—1,000 times the number they should have been. “The error was corrected, and it has been determined that no significant short- or long-term health risks, and no elevated cancer risks, are likely among personnel deployed to Balad,” an Air Force spokeswoman told the magazine in October 2008.

The correction did not include new numbers for particulate matter, tiny bits of dangerous metals and carcinogens suspended in the air. Experts tell TAC that this is the untold story: one doesn’t necessarily need to be working right on top of the pits to breathe this stuff in. No one knows how many soldiers have been exposed.

Struggling to manage the situation, CHPPM released “Just the Facts,” in December 2008, based on air sampling at Balad from 2004-06. It said that while there was an “occasional presence” of dioxins, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile compounds, the health risks were “low due to the infrequent detections of these chemicals.” In addition, the paper said, three incinerators were brought in between May 2007 and April 2008, and recycling was introduced, reducing the waste burning by 50 percent.

The raw data has been classified, despite calls from increasingly concerned members of Congress. The study has also been widely criticized for being incomplete, and questions have arisen regarding how the samples were taken and assessed. Among other complaints, experts say there was no review of the risk from individual contaminants interacting with one another, and the study minimized the levels of particulate matter, which were found to be higher than normal.

But the DoD stands by the research and continues to use the study as its chief reference point. Dr. Craig Postlewaite, director of DoD’s force readiness and health assurance, tells TAC that while the smoke from these pits could be responsible for “acute” health issues like “general irritation” of the eyes and throat, “when we look at respiratory effects on a population-wide basis, we’re not seeing a cause for concern. It is potentially a small number of people who are being affected, but they are not showing up in large numbers in our studies.”

Postlewaite adds, “Some people are more susceptible to diseases than other people.” He notes that some soldiers have preconditions, like asthma or genetic vulnerabilities, and others smoke cigarettes: “There is no assurance that we are going to be able to tease these things apart.” In the meantime, 27 incinerators have been installed, he said. “We are strongly committed to protecting our personnel.”

He stands by the 2008 DoD review and calls Kennedy’s reporting in the Army Times “a little bit jumbled.” He says that that her July piece reporting on an Army research article entitled “Potential Health Implications Associated with Particulate Matter Exposure in Deployed Settings in Southwest Asia” misrepresented the research in relation to the burn pits at Balad.

“Open burn pits and simple incinerators with little or no air pollution control devices, used at some locations to process waste in [Iraq and Afghanistan], generate smoke plumes that may pose a considerable health hazard to deployed personnel,” lead author Coleen Weese wrote in the Army report. Postlewaite insists the quote was not specific to the deployed population at Balad, but was a “general” observation about the possible effects of particulate matter.

He says there are ongoing epidemiological assessments that will zero in on where and how the pits were used and who might have been affected, “but right now we really don’t have any indication that this is causing harm to people.” He cites plans to start following soldiers after they return to monitor degenerative effects, something the DoD does not do now beyond perfunctory post-deployment health screening.

The VA, on the other hand, said that it is currently collecting this sort of data among its patient population, but it has not generated hard statistics about possible burn pit connections—at least not for public consumption. “Without documentation [from DoD], the VA really has nothing to go on,” insists Campbell.

Members of Congress are waking up to the issue. “I think there has been some effort to downplay the impact of these burn pits,” says Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y), who this spring introduced the Military Personnel Toxic Exposure Prevention Act, which would limit the use of burn pits, require a full investigation into their effects, and fund surveillance of exposed personnel through an official registry.

Bishop started the Burn Pit Action Center in May and says that the stories astound him. “I would say the biggest revelation is that any reasonable person would consider these burn pits a good idea to begin with,” he tells TAC. “Clearly they would not be allowed in our own country, there is no way we would dispose of waste like this in any community without violating any state or federal laws.”

Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) crossed party lines to sign on to Bishop’s bill, which had 22 cosponsors as of August. Paul tells TAC that as a medical doctor, he has been concerned since Vietnam about soldiers getting sick and the government’s apparent lack of urgency. “When our government calls us we go and don’t ask questions. Then [soldiers] come home and that’s when it gets more complicated,” he says.

As of August, 150 veterans in 21 states were suing major defense contractor Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) for mismanaging the burn pits. “I had been inundated by calls from soldiers about the burn pits,” said attorney Elizabeth Burke of the law firm Burke O’Neill, which is handling the case. “The black smoke was coming in through the air conditioners, and helicopters couldn’t take off because of the cloud. We knew KBR had the LOGCAP (Logistics Civil Augmentation Program) contract … to operate the waste management in a safe and effective manner and to minimize the smoke inhalation on the bases, and they failed to do that.” She contends that KBR didn’t get the incinerators up and running in time and cut corners “out of greed.” Her first plaintiff, Joshua Eller, claims that he saw wild dogs running in and out of the pits dragging out human body parts.

For its part, KBR flatly denies any “general assertion that KBR knowingly harmed troops” and avowed that “any burn pit operated in Iraq or Afghanistan is done pursuant to Army guidelines and regulations.”

Back in Indiana, Michael Maynard has lost his job with FedEx and is now collecting disability. He says he was told by doctors at Camp Taji that the Army had tested the air around the pit and “the levels came back normal, and we’d just have to take their word for it.” It seems that many soldiers were told that. 


Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.

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