Toxic Trash: The Burn Pits of Iraq and Afghanistan
Billy McKenna and Kevin Wilkins survived Iraq—and died at home. The Oxford American sent filmmaker Dave Anderson and journalist J. Malcolm Garcia to Florida to investigate this deadly threat to American soldiers.
“Smoke Signals,” by J. Malcolm Garcia
Published in the Fall 2011 Issue of The Oxford American.
Strange to think about it, the black smoke.
As it turns out, the eventual killer of Billy McKenna was lurking in the photographs he snapped in Iraq. Billy wrote captions beneath some of his photographs: typical day on patrol reads one. The photo is partially obscured by the blurred image of a soldier’s upraised hand. Brown desert unfurls away from a vehicle toward an empty horizon, and a wavering sky scorched white hovers above. Off to one side: Balad Air Base and the spreading umbrella of rising dank smoke from a burn pit.
Billy told his wife, Dina, in e-mails from Iraq that the stench was killing him. The air so dirty it rained mud. He didn’t call them burn pits. She can’t recall what he called them. He didn’t mean killing him literally. Just that the overwhelming odor was god-awful and tearing up his sinuses. He didn’t wear a mask. It would not have been practical. In heat that soared above a hundred degrees, what soldier would wear one?
Dina doesn’t know when she first heard the words “burn pit.” A Veterans Affairs doctor may have said it. The doctors were telling her a lot of things when Billy was on a ventilator. All she could think was, How can he have cancer? He’s indestructible. He’s been to hell and back. He can build houses, race cars, fish, camp. He was an Eagle Scout as a kid. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes.
But Billy had been exposed to something much more harmful than cigarettes. Since 2003, defense contractors have used burn pits at a majority of U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan as a method of destroying military waste. The pits incinerate discarded human body parts, plastics, hazardous medical material, lithium batteries, tires, hydraulic fluids, and vehicles. Jet fuel keeps pits burning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The U.S. government, however, has only recently acknowledged the harmful effects of burn pits. According to a report released last year by the United States Government Accountability Office, “burn pits help base commanders manage waste, but also produce smoke and harmful emissions that military and other health professionals believe may result in acute and chronic health effects to those exposed.”
When asked recently about the number of veterans suffering from respiratory illnesses, a military spokesman, Major T.G. Taylor, responded only by citing a contrary May 2010 Department of Defense study, which he says found that illnesses due to smoke exposure in war zones were no more common among soldiers exposed to burn pits than those who were not exposed.
The VA states on its own webpage that chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metals, aluminum, unexploded ordnance, munitions, and petroleum products among other toxic waste are destroyed in burn pits. Possible side effects, the department notes, “may affect the skin, eyes, respiration, kidneys, liver, nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, peripheral nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract.”
The burn pit at Balad consumed about 250 tons of waste a day, exposing 25,000 U.S. military personnel and thousands of contractors to toxic fumes.
The pit was shut down in 2009, though as of last year, twenty-two other burn pits were still in operation in Iraq. But the damage was done.
“Patients don’t fully understand the implication of their symptoms,” says Anthony Szema, head of the Allergy Diagnostic Unit at Stony Brook University hospital, who has studied the effects of burn pits on returning veterans. “Most general internists don’t know how to treat this. Hundreds of people are coming back [from Iraq and Afghanistan]. We have to create special centers of excellence within the VA with expertise to address this. We have to invent new drugs. Test sand, burn pits, what soldiers have been exposed to. Screen those exposed. We’re talking a large-scale effort.”
When President Obama took office in January 2009, 144,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Iraq. One month later, Obama announced there would be an end to U.S. combat missions there by August 31, 2010. After a series of drawdowns, about 50,000 U.S. troops remain at war. That means 94,000 troops have returned home in under three years, many of whom were likely exposed to burn pits. Already, Veteran Administration physicians have seen an increase in respiratory problems in returning veterans.
“The system is going to be overwhelmed,” Szema said.
Of course the smoke would be harmful, Dina thinks now. But at the time of her husband’s return from Iraq, why would she have thought anything about black smoke rising from something called a burn pit? What should a big hole in the ground the military used to destroy waste have meant to her? Why would she have thought about anything other than that her husband was home alive?
Not that long ago Dina felt the wild, heart-thudding joy of her husband’s return, the smiling-until-it-hurts kind of delight, that impassioned feet-off-the-ground body-crushing embrace of I’m home, but it seems long ago today.
Dina and others have joined in lawsuits against KBR, Inc., a Texas-based government contractor, and its former parent company Halliburton, alleging it had exposed American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to lethal air pollutants by burning toxic waste. The heavy black burn-pit smoke lingered for days and even weeks at a time over U.S. bases and areas nearby, affecting soldiers and local populations. Claims against KBR and Halliburton have been filed in sixteen states by almost two hundred plaintiffs.
But the problem runs deeper than just KBR and Halliburton. The burns pits were intended to clean up Iraq and Afghanistan, to remove inevitable litter and detritus from the war zone. But in the process of cleaning up, the toxic smoke has become an unintended killer of American troops abroad. (Click HERE to read the entire article)