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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. Read the remainder of this entry »
It shouldn’t startle anyone to find that the Pentagon has blatantly ignored a congressional mandate to start reducing its use of burn pits at U.S. bases overseas.
It was only a year ago that Pentagon officials openly doubted that the black hellfire released from tons of burning hazardous waste in the open air could possibly have any long-term health effects on anyone unlucky enough to be breathing it in everyday.
“When we look at respiratory effects on a population-wide basis,” said Dr. Craig Postlewaite, director of DoD’s force readiness and health assurance, in an interview last September, “we’re not seeing a cause for concern.” The DoD’s official view has so far not changed. So, even as more and more service members come home sick – some of them irreparably, terminally – it would seem the Department of Defense has gone into classic default mode: stall until it becomes impossible to stall any longer.
That may buy the DoD ten years at least, and by then it’ll be the Veterans Administration’s problem.
“They hold with the lie until they are caught so red handed they just can’t lie about it any longer,” says Deb Crawford, who spent time as a civilian electrician in the Green Zone from 2004 to 2006. She now publishes Ms. Sparky.com, a popular watchdog site, and recently spoke with Antiwar.com. “If anyone in the Pentagon were to claim they didn’t think the burn pits were an inherent health hazard to civilians and troops, I would have to call them a bold face liar.” Read the remainder of this entry »
October 15, 2010 – As this is something I have written on previously it seems appropriate to note that today the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on open-air burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. forces generate a lot of waste. According to the GAO U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq generate about 10 pounds of waste per servicemember each day. This waste may consist of plastic, styrofoam, and food from dining facilities; discarded electronics; shipping materials such as wooden pallets and plastic wrap; appliances; and other items such as mattresses, clothing, tires, metal containers, and furniture.
Assuming 50,000 troops in Iraq that is half a million pounds of waste a day. In Afghanistan it is nearly a million pounds a day. That doesn’t count waste produced by contractors or other DOD components. It also doesn’t include hazardous or medical waste. No matter how you look at it that is one heck of a log of garbage to burn.
Lawsuits have been filed in federal court in at least 43 states in which current and former service members have alleged, among other things, that a contractor’s negligent management of burn pit operations, contrary to applicable contract provisions, exposed them to air pollutants that subsequently caused serious health problems.
The contractor, KBR, has moved to dismiss the suits, arguing, among other things, that it cannot be held liable for any injuries that may have occurred to service personnel because its burn pit activities occurred at the direction of the military.
IMAGE SOURCE: Photos of Major Kevin Wilkins, Jill Wilkins, Courtesy, Jill Wilkins
Her passion is almost like a ministry. Jill Wilkins, 50 of Eustis, Florida checked her Facebook page this morning. She had 1,100 new friends.
Wilkins talks in an upbeat way with anyone who will listen. She helps families seek answers and military benefits for the returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan who are reporting an array of illnesses – from cancer to Parkinson’s disease, skin rashes to tremors.
The unifying thread – all had been exposed to burn pits during their time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
No one knows how many people have been exposed to smoke from burn pits or exactly how many are in operation in Iraq and Afghanistan but they do know what’s put in them – everything.
The multi-acre unregulated garbage pits are where military base waste is soaked with jet fuel and torched – kitchen garbage, unexploded ordnances, gas cans, pesticides, medical waste, pharmaceuticals, body parts, plastic bottles, even vehicles.
A heavy dark smoke envelopes the living quarters and personnel – both military and civilian – breathe the choking noxious air round-the-clock.
Wilkins journey began after she visited the tiny Veterans Administration office in Tavares, Florida. Her husband, USAF Major Kevin Wilkins, had died of a brain tumor the month before.
A member of the 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, Maj. Wilkins was an RN stationed in Balad, Iraq beginning in May 2006. During a second tour in January 2007, he flew missions in and out of Qatar and then returned home.
Going in for a review at Florida Hospital Waterman, nurses noticed Wilkins did not react well to instructions on the laptop, his memory seemed slow. After his second tour, the headaches got severe. He started vomiting one morning and he and Jill went to the ER and got a CAT scan.
The doctor thought a brain mass might be an infection and asked ‘Have you been exposed to anything in Iraq?’ Jill says.
That’s when Kevin started talking about the burn pits.
A second CAT scan followed and the doctor called an ambulance and immediately took Kevin Wilkins to the hospital in Orlando. He had surgery Friday night, went into cardiac arrest on Sunday and on Tuesday, Wilkins was taken off the ventilator. He died at the age of 51.
The diagnosis – a glioblastoma – brain cancer. It is one of the symptoms on the list of the burn pit registry being collected by at Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY).
Jill Wilkins’ “cause” began at the VA office in Tavares, Florida. Jill told a clerk about the exchange with the doctor about burn pits. Come back when you have proof of what they put in the burn pits, she was told by the rude clerk.
“She made me feel like I was asking for something that I shouldn’t be asking for. That was the most horrible experience ever, I’m done,” she said to herself.
But she was not done.
A friend of a friend contacted CNN which shot a story with her on Wednesday and filed it on Friday. “I had my benefits within three weeks, that’s unheard of,” she says.
During this time period, her husband’s commander from Patrick Air Force Base began asking about the headaches. The doctor in the ER had suspected an environmental exposure. Jill was told about the Web site set up by Ms Sparky (Deborah Crawford, a former KBR employee). She began doing research into burn pits, searching VA documents. Through Ms Sparky, a disabled serviceman asked when Kevin died was he on active duty. Yes, she said. He had two days left.
“He said, Jill, he died within one year of his active service date, your claim will be processed. It’s a presumptive service death.”
A death within one year of active duty is called presumptive service connected. While it’s not known if this otherwise healthy man’s brain tumor came from burn pit exposure, the fact that his death occurred within one year of his last tour made the difference.
Major Wilkins’ second tour ended April 3, 2007, he died on April 1, 2008.
“Most people don’t know this. No one caught this. Even the lady at the VA’s office. Why didn’t she look at the dates?” Wilkins asks.
Wilkins thought getting the VA benefits would end her quest, but the help she received from a stranger only encouraged her more.
“I’ll never forget the day he sent that to me. Here’s this guy who doesn’t know me and he basically has just gotten me my VA benefits. My thought was, if I can help someone because they don’t know…”
A friend from church helped turn her passion into a Facebook page for others to find and share information.
Wilkins says her role is sometimes helping others connect the dots, sometimes playing mediator. One vet with skin lesions is put in touch with another who has skin sores. A lot of leukemia cases are coming in and almost all symptoms start with respiratory problems. “They get documents from each other and when they go to the doctor they have documents, they talk to each other,” she says.
“You get to a point with paperwork…I know of soldiers who are barely existing because they can’t work. Every day is a struggle. I feel horrible for them.”
Burn Pit Controversy
The VA still denies a link between burn pits and health effects but is backing away from the steadfast official denial. The senior health protection team says burn pits may pose some long-term medical problems, especially COPD and asthma, partially due to the number of veterans coming forward to report problems.
Dr. Robert Miller of Vanderbilt took the question one step further. The pulmonologist performed open lung biopsies on 49 service men and women who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan and found all but one had the identical findings of significant damage to the airwaves which were shutting down.
An Air Force Officer and environmental engineer, Darrin Curtis, in a December 2006 memo called the Balad acres-large pit “an acute health hazard.”
The Institute of Medicine will look at the link between the symptoms emerging and burn pit exposure over the next 18 months. That information could lead to some guidance on whether injured service men and woman should be provided military benefits.
KBR in a previous email told IB News, said it was not responsible for the burn pit in Balad. Washington, D.C. Attorney Elizabeth Burke says it is.
Burke and another law firm, Motley Rice (IB Partner), are waiting to do discovery on the case. Wilkins has joined the multidistrict litigation that will be heard in Maryland.
Still in Operation?
With discovery on hold, the question of how many burn pits are still in existence is an open one.
Contributors to Wilkins’ site have provided some answers the lawyers would like to have – Bob says Tikrit, Iraq (140 km northwest of Baghdad and birthplace of Saddam Hussein) still has a burn pit; another vet says Bakuba, Iraq, (30 mi NE of Baghdad also spelled Baqubah); Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, as of Oct 2009 still had a burn pit saya another; Taji Iraq, 20 miles north of Baghdad; Tallil Air Base 193 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq; and Camp Liberty, northeast of the Baghdad Airport, say respondents to Wilkins’ Facebook site.
Balad, the large base in Iraq where Wilkins was stationed, reportedly now has three or four incinerators.
Wilkins says she’s not angry at the military. KBR is another story.
During a November 2009 hearings on burn pits, former KBR contractor, Russell Keith, told his supervisors the pits were against regulations. Keith says he was told, “Keep your mouth shut and do what we tell you. We’ll be making enough to pay for fines and still make a profit. That makes me angry,” says Wilkins.
“I think things happen for a reason, you can only do wrong for so long and it will come back to you. It will come back to them,” she says. #
(Correction- Wilkins did have surgery two days before he died. His review was by Florida Hospital Waterman, not the military) (click HERE for the original article)
Jill first contacted me around November 2008. I was just taken by her story and by her strenth and courage. I first blogged about Kevin in December 2008. Since that time Jill has become the champion for burn pit victims and I blog about her every chance I get. I’ve told Jill this many times…..I’m sure Kevin is very proud of what she has accomplished for others. We need more Jill Wilkins in the world!
Benefit victory not end for vet’s widow in Eustis
Amy Rippel | Special To The Sentinel
February 17, 2009
EUSTIS – When Jill Wilkins filed a veteran’s-death claim in December after her husband — an Air Force reservist who served in Iraq — died from a brain tumor, she assumed it would take months to process.
The Eustis woman was shocked when the claim was approved a mere 21 days later, in early January.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs determined that Kevin Wilkins’ family is entitled to service-connected death benefits. But a bigger question remains unanswered: Was Kevin Wilkins’ brain tumor the result of exposure to burn pits in Iraq?
That question may take months, if not years, to be answered, according to Jill Wilkins and federal officials.
Still, Jill Wilkins said she is proud of the work her husband did and grateful to get some financial and education assistance as a result of his service.
“If he had died two days later, it would have been a whole different ball game,” she said. “As fortunate as I am in my situation, what about the others? Because we know they’re out there and they’re sick.”
Locally, Kevin Wilkins worked as a nurse at Florida Hospital Waterman in the ambulatory surgical unit and the emergency room. Before that he worked in the emergency room at Ormond Beach Memorial Hospital.
He was a member of the 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, where he served as a Critical Care Air Transport Teams nurse. He was deployed twice — to Balad from May to August 2006 and then to Qatar from January to April 3, 2007.
He was hospitalized on March 26 with blinding headaches and vomiting, and diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died six days later, on April 1, at age 51.
While hospitalized, he told doctors that his headaches started in early 2007. In the hospital, a doctor asked Kevin whether he had been in contact with chemicals in Iraq. He explained that the burn pits were used to burn trash, including medical waste, plastics and chemicals, Jill Wilkins said.
Jill Wilkins started questioning the safety of the burn pits after reviewing a December 2006 report completed by the U.S. Air Force that called the burn pits in Balad an “operational health risk.”
However, a 2007 Air Force report contradicts the earlier report by saying testing has shown the pits at Balad pose no significant health risk.
At the urging of friends, Wilkins filed the death-benefits claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs on Dec. 17.
Collette Burgess, a Veterans Affairs assistant veterans services center manager, said approving benefits for Wilkins had nothing to do with possible exposure to burn pits.
She said that the brain tumor was a “presumptive disability.” Because a tumor is typically slow progressing, it was assumed that Wilkins had it when he was on active duty. And because he died within one year of service, his family was entitled to service-connected death benefits.
“Presumably, the brain tumor was there while he was on active duty,” Burgess said.
As part of the death benefits, Wilkins and her two teenage children will get educational assistance, among other things. Jill Wilkins said even though her struggle for benefits has ended, she will continue to help others who face similar problems.
“I’m so excited and I feel blessed that it happened in such a short time that I almost feel it’s my responsibility to try to find others who are struggling with the system,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out how to do that.”
Kerry Baker of Disabled American Veterans said he has heard from hundreds of Iraq war veterans who said they have disabilities caused from burn-pit exposure. But the issue is just now reaching the radar screens of public officials and legislators.
“It’s a brand-new subject even though it’s been going on for a long time,” said Baker, the DAV’s associate national legislative director in Washington, D.C.
He said it’s going to take people like Wilkins to come forward and tell their stories for more attention to be paid.
“We don’t want this to take another 20 years, like Vietnam and the Gulf War,” he said of helping troops exposed to toxins released from the burn pits. “We know what they’ve been exposed to.” (click HERE to read the original article)
Jill-It has been an absolute pleasure working with you. Kudo’s to you!!!