Monthly Archives: February 2010

New Public Database Reveals First-Hand Accounts of How Toxic Burn Pits Are Making U.S. Troops Sick

Nora Eisenberg, AlterNet
April 3, 2009
Cancer, pulmonary disease, multiple sclerosis, sleep apnea, heart disease: Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans have suffered all these and more from toxic fumes spewing from burn pits on American bases. The Disabled American Veterans now has information on 182 sick veterans in a database developed by Assistant National Legislative director, Kerry Baker. Forty-eight have developed lymphoma, leukemia or other cancers; and 16 veterans in the database have died. And on March 30th, a group of seven lawmakers asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to attend to these findings as well the findings from an independent scientific consultant, which found a serious danger that veterans may become ill  from burn pit fumes.

As early as 2006, the DoD had been informed by Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander Darrin Curtis that the pit was an acute health hazard. Though the Department of Defense has admitted that samples at the large burn pit at Balad contain Acetaldehyde, Acrolien, Arsenic, Benzene, Carbon Monoxide, Ethylbenzene,  Formaldehyde, Hydrogen Cyanide, Hydrogen Fluoride, Phosgene, Sulfur Dioxide, Sulfuric Acid, Toluene, Trichloroethane, Xylene, and other chemicals, to date, it  has insisted the pit presents no known dangers. The letter to Gates — signed by Senators Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; Evan Bayh, D-Ind; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Representatives Tim Bishop, D-N.Y.; Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; John Hall, D-N.Y.; Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.; and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H. — urged vigilance, citing the protracted and painful lessons from Agent Orange.

Rep. Bishop’s office has developed a website in which veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan can tell their stories. In just a few days, many stories of negligence and suffering have emerged, adding to a tragic saga.

Dave

Dave was stationed at Balad, less than half a mile downwind from a double burn pit.

“They burned plastic, chemicals, tires, metal and who knows what else in that pit. Two months in everyone was coughing up black stuff. Three months in my black stuff started to include blood. I went to the clinic and the front desk turned me away. They said that I didn’t need to see a doctor because it was just the burn pit crud. They said, ‘A doctor cannot help you if you are not ill from a disease.’ Later in the deployment, the smoke was so bad that we all were puking from it. Found out later that it was probably arsenic in the smoke. An air force memo outlined Dioxin, the chemical that made everyone sick from agent orange, comes from burning the same materials that were in the burn pit. The DoD tries to say that the dioxin was of no threat to human life. … I might not be the smartest guy in the world but dioxin is dioxin and it’s harmful to humans no matter what the source. Be it agent orange or standing in the plume of the burn pit … But whatever, I came back home and was still coughing and having breathing problems. The doc gave me Sudafed.”

Dave’s Physical Training run time went from 10:12 to 13:59 in 6 months. His squad leader told him it was his fault. He should run even more, to run faster.

“So I took his advice … and then boom. Emergency room. Couldn’t breathe. Had to be put on a machine … And the salt in the wound: The DoD says that burning tires, plastics, chemicals, medical waste, metal, oil, etc. isn’t harmful. Which makes you wonder why it’s illegal to burn that stuff back at home. ”

Terry

Terry, deployed with the 101st Division, was stationed in Balad.

“Two weeks after arriving in country on my most recent deployment to Balad, I started developing symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as Still’s Disease (Adult Onset Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis). The experts say that the disease is triggered by something to which you’re exposed.”

Terry is an Army Reserve Major and civilian airline pilot, and the illness has put both his military and civilian careers in jeopardy.

Kathy

Kathy was a staff sergeant with the National Guard in Balad.

She became sick while there, and once home was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease — hearing loss and tinnitus.

“My health began to slowly decline. Widespread muscle aches and pains w/stiffness gradually settled in, as did neuralgia and sleep apnea.”

She now sleeps with a breathing machine. Kathy has done extensive research and has found dozens of studies that have linked high concentration of particulate matter to cardiovascular problems, as well as to premature death.

Michael

Michael was stationed in Balad Iraq from Oct 2005 until June 2006.

“During this time I would always complain about the smoke. We were told it was safe. Well I started choking in my sleep waking up not breathing. At the time I was also being treated for PTSD so that’s what I was told it was from. I got medavaced from Balad in June. I seen another doctor; he told me that it did not sound like PTSD. I did a sleep study and I found out that I had sleep apnea really bad. since then I have had three surgeries on my face and now I have chronic pain in my face because the first surgery did not go well. I have breathing problems during the day, a problem with the lower part of my lungs so now I’m on inhalers. I never had any of these problems until I got to Balad. It has pretty much ruined my army career. It’s time someone is held responsible for negligence to me and my fellow soldiers going through the same thing.”

Robert

Robert was deployed to Balad, Iraq from February to June 2006.

“Virtually every night my tent was hazy and full of smoke and at times you could even see bits of ash floating in the air. The smell was so acrid that even holding your head on the sheet/blankets would not help you get that “clean” breathe of fresh air. I never got a good nights sleep there.”

Things he saw in the burn pit included 55-gallon drums of unknown fluids, tent parts, cabinets … anything from paper to the kitchen sink. He now has problems doing “normal tasks like moving boxes, putting on my boots, playing with my children … It feels like someone is grabbing me in the center of my chest and squeezing to prevent me getting a good breath … I find myself gasping for air and hyperventilating to catch my breath. For Robert, a 42-year-old father of six, “The most troubling of this isn’t my health as it is is the health and welfare of the thousands of other service men and women who have come and gone through Balad. My oldest two children also joined the Air Force … and ironically enough my oldest daughter is heading to Balad this summer on her third deployment to the same base. My son is also heading to Balad this summer on his first deployment. What is in their future … one can only hope …”

Derrol

Derrol was stationed at Bagram, Afghanistan and later Balad, Iraq as an Air Force reservist on active orders for over six years.

From the steady burning pits, he suffered both coughing and diarrhea. “An x-ray for a back problem showed that one half of my right lung was missing … they found 2 large nodules/masses in my lower right lung. A CT scan “showed a total of 7 nodules/masses in my right lung and scarring in my left. A Line of Duty was initiated and pushed through rather quickly to confirm the injury as active duty, deploy related. I contacted the VA and started a claim in November of 2007. I again deployed to Qatar for 4.5 months last summer and the claim was held until I was released from active duty in Sept 2008. It is now March 24, 2009 and I still have not heard from VA as to my medical board rating for compensation and disability. I also have problems with my stomach now and shortness of breath, I am still waiting on VA.”

John and Wallace both worked for KBR at Balad. They both now have colon cancer.

***

More first-hand reports from veterans can be found on the online Military Times.

Veterans who are suffering health problems they believe are connected to burn pit fumes should report their condition to Kerry Baker at 202-314-5229, to add to the database.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under 1

Is KBR’s Decade-Long Crime Spree Finally Coming to an End?

Nora Eisenberg, AlterNet
May 20, 2009
How infuriating has it been, the last five years, watching Halliburton and KBR get away with murder? Murder, poisoning, electrocution, rape, human trafficking, fraud, bribery — their crimes go on and on. But could their decade-long spree may be coming to an end? This year, settlements for old offenses, new exposés and new lawsuits for more recent evil-doings, have resulted in plummeting stock prices, canceled contracts, and a soon-to-be imprisoned former CEO.

The latest blow came last Thursday, in a Texas court, where executives for Halliburton and KBR were described in legal papers as conducting a “reign of terror” and functioning “as criminal enterprises.” Paying bribes, taking kickbacks, concealing gang rapes, and engaging in human trafficking were among the crimes listed on the May 14th complaint brought not by government or human rights lawyers, as you might expect, but by attorneys filing a class action suit for the pension fund of Detroit’s Policemen and Firemen. According to the press release issued by the funds’ attorneys, Grant & Eisenhofer, Halliburton and KBR’s directors enabled “a pervasive environment of misdeed and corruption,” resulting in suits, investigations, fines, penalties, and settlements of over $650 million, which have ravaged the corporations’ reputations, prospects, finances, and in turn the pension fund’s investment.

The complaint charges that executives hid pending investigations from shareholders until after KBR was spun off in 2006. Months later, the new KBR paid a settlement to the government for violating the U.S. False Claims Act through double-billing and inflating prices for goods and services for troops in Kosovo. In 2007, a report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction cited KBR for widespread waste, mismanagement, improper documentation, and lack of oversight, and the General Accounting Office recommended that the government withold a KBR contract. In 2008, Albert “Jack” Stanley, former CEO of KBR/Halliburton, admitted to coordinating briberies of Nigerian officials to secure contracts worth $6 billion. In February of this year, Halliburton agreed to pay $579 million in fines and penalties to settle the bribery charges, and Stanley now faces his own $10.8 million fine and seven years in prison.

The Texas suit covers the period both before and after KBR became an independent company, and names the majority of the two companies’ recent and current boards, including such corporate heavyweights as past president and chairman of American Airlines, Robert Crandall. The May 14th press release by attorneys originally listed former Halliburton CEO, Dick Cheney as a defendant (not surprising, since most of the Nigerian bribes occurred under Cheney’s tenure; Cheney also appointed and directly supervised Stanley), but a hastily issued correction stated that Cheney had been listed in error. The complaint identified some of Halliburton’s and KBR’s known “misdeeds” in Iraq, including providing troops with untreated, untested water from the Euphrates and delivering ice to troops in a truck that showed signs of its former use as storage for corpses. The complaint concluded, “The myriad crimes and wrongdoings discussed above simply could not have happened if Defendants were doing their jobs. As officers and directors of the Companies, the Defendants were required to ensure that the Companies’ internal controls were in place, functioning properly, and sufficiently strong to prevent it from committing wrongful or illegal acts.”

The Detroit pension fund suit is one of many recent suits against Halliburton and KBR. In November 2008, Joshua Eller, a civilian employee at Balad Air Force base northeast of Baghdad, cited rotten food, contaminated water and ice, and toxic fumes from open burn pits, as contributors to his ongoing depression, nightmares, and gastrointestinal and dermatological conditions. In March 2009, parents of Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth sued KBR for wrongful death from electrocution in the shower at his Green Zone base. In April 2009, troops, private employees, and families filed nine lawsuits against KBR for compensation for illness and deaths from exposure to toxic fumes from Iraq and Afghanistan burn pits. The suits, which lawyers will be pursuing as a class-action, seek damages “in an amount sufficient to strip defendants of all of the revenue and profits” involved in managing waste for military bases.”

But the pension fund suit is the first initiated by shareholders, and the stakes are high. Grant and Eisenhofer is a formidable opponent, ranking first among plaintiff firms in funds recovered for shareholder clients. The firm is currently involved in class action suits against Barclays Bank, Countrywide Financial, UBS, Pfizer,and Merck as well as Tremont Holdings Group Inc, a fund charged with feeding $3 billion of client investments to Bernard Madoff Securities.

Since 2004, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has fed $13 billion taxpayer dollars to U.S. military contractors for “unsupported” costs, and most often the recipient of the questionable payment has been KBR. This according to testimony earlier this month before the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Pentagon’s chief contract auditor, April Stephenson. All in all, KBR owes the government $100 million for overcharges and fraud, and Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have written to Secretary Gates asking that the Pentagon do more to recover the money. In the meantime, fraud — and larceny and rape and murder — not withstanding, KBR remains the largest DoD contractor and one of three companies selected by them to bid on war-zone contracts, under the DoD Logcap (Logistics Civil Augmentation) Program.

What will it take to end the crime-spree of Halliburton, KBR, and their likes? This March, in Hays County, Texas, Iraq veterans who’d seen KBR crimes up close appeared, along with local activists, at the county commissioners meeting where a road-building contract with KBR was to be executed. So informed and persuasive was their testimony of KBR atrocities, fraud, and corruption, that commissioners voted unanimously, in April, to rescind the KBR contract. Now that was a class act, a rousing opener for this month’s class action from Detroit.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1

What Nidal Hasan, Timothy McVeigh, and the Beltway Sniper Have in Common: All Were Scarred by Pointless U.S. Wars

Nora Eisenberg, AlterNet
November 25, 2009

The media were so busy linking alleged Fort Hood murderer Major Nidal Hasan to international Islamic terrorism the last few weeks that they hardly noted the execution of the Beltway sniper, John Allen Muhammad, on November 10th. Seven years ago, Muhammad was at the top of conservative commentators’ Islamofascists-with-Links-to-Al Qaeda lists. Now, like then, the search for foreign links is proving to be a fruitless, distracting us from the abundant evidence of a causal connection between such murders and service in the U.S. military.

Consider the case of John Allen Muhammad, (formerly John Allen Williams). In her recently published memoir, Scared Silent, Mildred Muhammad, the later of his two ex-wives, writes that her husband went to the 1991 Gulf War a “happy,” “focused, and “intelligent” man, who returned home “depressed,” “totally confused,” and “violent,” making her fear for her life. In their briefs, Muhammad’s appeals lawyers stressed that his “severe mental illness” never came up at trial, where he was allowed to represent himself despite obvious mental incompetence. (Till the end, he maintained his innocence, claiming that at the time of the killing spree he was in Germany for dental work.)

In seeking clemency and a stay of execution, Muhammad’s lawyers presented psychiatric reports diagnosing Schizophrenia and brain scans documenting profound malformations consistent with psychotic disease. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Virginia Governor Tim Kaine were impressed. According to Governor Kaine, “crimes that are this horrible, you just can’t understand….” And one day before Veterans Day, John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection.

Muhammad’s lawyers might have included other facts.

Mental disorders from depression to mood swings, thought disorders, violent outbursts, and delusions are not uncommon among Gulf War veterans in addition to physical symptoms such as rashes, vertigo, respiratory and gastrointestinal problem, and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS, and brain tumors. According to Dr. William E. Baumzweiger, a California psychiatrist with expertise in psychiatric ailments of Gulf War veterans, “a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans become homicidal” seemingly “out of nowhere.” Indeed as early as 1994, University of Texas epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley, the preeminent researcher of Gulf War disease, had demonstrated that the brain scans of veterans with Gulf War illness were distinctly abnormal.

Last year a blue-panel, congressionally-mandated Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC) finally confirmed what veterans and their families have long asserted: That “without a doubt,” Gulf War illness, as it’s come to be called, is a profound, multi-system physical illness “caused” by brain-damaging chemicals to which troops were exposed by the Department of Defense. The RAC report identified three specific neurotoxins as certain culprits: anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take (or risk court martial), insecticides and repellants that drenched troops’ tents, clothing, and gear, and nerve gases including sarin (the killer chemical in the Tokyo subway attack) emitted into the air when U.S. forces dismantled and demolished a vast munitions storage facility in Khamisiyah, Iraq. Muhammad’s lawyers pointed to childhood beatings as a cause of his psychiatric disease and brain malformation, claiming that Gulf War syndrome exacerbated these conditions. But they didn’t mention that Mohammad had no history of mental illness before the war–and that during the war he was stationed in Khamisiyah.

It probably wouldn’t have helped. In 2002, another Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr. was executed for the 1995 rape and murder of a young female soldier, Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride. Like Sergeant Muhammad, Sergeant Jones was an exemplary soldier decorated in the war; but also like Muhammad, he returned from Desert Storm depressed, disoriented, and increasingly anti-social and bizarre. Like Muhammad, his defense was inadequate–but his appeals lawyer displayed MRIs and other scans of his abnormal brain, arguing that it was evidence of the brain damage from toxins he and other veterans with Gulf War disease were exposed to in-country. Supporting the petition for clemency was the written testimony of Dr. Haley that “there is now a compelling involuntary link between Mr. Jones’ neurotoxic war injury and his inexplicable crime.” Like Muhammad, Jones was stationed in Khamisiyah during the demolition, which poisoned thousands of troops and then thousands more as sarin plumes traveled far and wide, a fact the government hid for close to a decade.

And then there’s the case of Timothy McVeigh. We have no scans of his brain, but we have ample reports of his mental state before and after Desert Storm, and evidence that the war changed him profoundly. In their biography, American Terrorist, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck paint a vivid picture of McVeigh’s days in the ground war. The enthusiastic young marksman, at first, happily followed orders and shot an Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun over a mile away. When a bloody mist replaced the soldier’s head in his viewfinder, McVeigh was disturbed and discharged the rest of his round into empty desert sand. Later, after Saddam had agreed to a UN and Soviet brokered ceasefire, McVeigh was further shocked and shaken by orders to kill defeated Iraqi soldiers traveling home on the highway from Kuwait to Iraq (come to be known as the “Highway of Death” for the thousands that U.S. Forces corralled and massacred on the night of Feb 26, 1991). He watched the road in horror as dogs chewed on human limbs, and as human bodies without arms or legs tried to crawl away.

In his famous 60 Minutes interview ten years later, McVeigh would tell Ed Bradley that the killing changed him. He found himself thinking, “I’m in this person`s country. What right did I have to come over to his country and kill him? …How did he ever transgress against me?” He went over thinking, “Not only is Saddam evil, all Iraqis are evil.” But quickly it was “an entirely different ballgame… face to face…you realize they`re just people like you.” He told Bradley that the government modeled brutal violence. In a 1998 prison essay he objected to the United State’s continuing campaign against Iraq: It was the U.S. that had “set the standard” for “stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction.

McVeigh’s experience in the Gulf War surely altered his thinking. But did it also alter his brain? What toxins might have entered his body on the highway where U.S. forces had just dropped cluster bombs and 500-ton bombs, napalm and depleted uranium, incinerating thousands vehicles and the people inside. He told Ed Bradley that when he came back “something didn`t feel right in me, but..I couldn`t say what it was.” Psychological trauma alone, neeruoscientist now tell us, affects not only psyches but brains. Sophisticated neuroimaging shows the brains of those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be abnormal in areas regulating memory retrieval and inhibition (hippocampus), fearfulness and focus (pre-frontal cortex), and emotionality and lability (amygdala). The hippocampus of Alzheimer’s sufferers are also shrunken and the amygdala of bi-polar sufferers have enhanced activation similar to those with PTSD.

Unlike McVeigh, Muhammad, or Jones, Major Hasan was not exposed to war’s toxins, nor to its traumas first-hand. Day after day, though, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or on their way back, relived before him attacks and atrocities they had inflicted, suffered, and/or witnessed, altering his views and his mind. In the beginning of his Army training and service, by all accounts, Nidal Hasan was proud to serve his country. His examination of the internal conflict within Muslim GIs asked to kill other Muslims – prohibited in the Koran– started out an academic project to enhance the Army’s understanding and management of the dilemma. But as Hasan’s exposure to mentally disturbed soldiers’ memories, fears, and guilt increased, so evidently did his own internal strife and, in all likelihood, the secondary PTSD common to family members, friends, and professionals in close contact with victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of catastrophes.

Even the most astute of commentators, like New York Times columnist Frank Rich, are wondering if Hasan is an “actual terrorist or an unfathomable mass murderer merely dabbling in jihadist ideas.” But Major Hasan’s religion was only one of several aspects of his being shattered by the stories he was charged with hearing. The troubled GI who opened fire on fellow soldiers at a counseling center in Fort Liberty earlier this year was not a Muslim, although some right-wing blogs initially suggested he was. In truth, the violence soldiers and veterans inflict against other Americans is not unfathomable at all.

The fire power expended on Iraq in the six-war was greater than that used in all wars in history combined, exceeded only by today’s continuing sequel. The savage murder of civilians, though not on the radar of most producers and consumers of American media, smolders in the minds of many troops and veterans of all backgrounds serving in all three recent wars in the region. Troops on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the local citizens, suffer the fumes from open burn pits the depth of city blocks and the length of small towns; blast injuries from IEDs continue to damage the interiors of bodies and brains, often with no external breakage or bleading, causing, eminent neurologists say, a new kind of brain injury not seen before in the chronicles of war. Chemical fumes, powders, and liquids from military and industrial facilities bombed in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to contaminate earth, water, and air. Were today’s wars to end tomorrow, the consequences of our invasions would not. For decades and perhaps centuries, Iraqis and Afghans will suffer disease and deprivation, and invading and occupying troops will carry the war back home, as soldiers always do, but with brains, bodies, and minds shattered as never before.

As the U.S. criminal justice system closes the case of Sergeant Muhammad and takes up that of Major Hasan, who will identify and prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for these heinous mass murders? The current trend in international war crimes and crimes against humanity is to consign crimes committed by individuals to national courts, and to apply international justice to those at the highest levels of government who make the decisions implemented on the ground. Brutal murders by American veterans and troops of fellow soldiers and citizens were surely not the outcomes planned by our leaders, but by now they are too common and too linked to wartime exposures to be considered unanticipated or unfathomable.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1

KBR Tells Court It Was Following Military Orders When Employees Burned Toxic Waste in Open Pits

Nora Eisenberg/Alternet February 12, 2010

In October a class action suit combining 22 lawsuits from 43 states was filed in US District Court in Maryland against KBR, Halliburton, and other military contractors for damages to health from open air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.  According to plaintiffs’ lawyers the military contracting giant had been paid millions of dollars to safely dispose of waste on bases but negligently burned refuse in open pits, spewing toxins, including known carcinogens, into the air. Last week, KBR sought to dismiss the charges. Their tack was not to deny that they burned lithium batteries, petroleum, asbestos, trucks, cars, paint, plastic, Styrofoam, medical waste including human limbs, and more, as the soldiers have charged, but to challenge their liability for any ensuing problems.  According to KBR’s press fact sheet on the suit, the Army, not KBR, decides if a burn pit or an incinerator will be used, where it will be built in relation to living and working facilities, and what it can burn. KBR insists it was and is still  just “performing under the direction and control of military commanders in the field.” In short, they were only following orders and the soldiers are going after the wrong guy.

But in the Bush-Cheney government, the DoD and its contractor were best buddies if not one and the same guy. As Defense Secretary, when the large scale  privatization of the military’s civil logistics activities was still just a gleam in his eye, Cheney paid KBR almost  $9 million to study the feasibility and advisability of private companies handling massive logistics. In a classified report, KBR determined that privatizing civilian logistics was a good idea for the governement, and later that year Cheney awarded KBR the first comprehensive LOGCAP contract. Three years later Cheney became CEO of Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR. Two years after that, KBR was fired by the Clinton DoD for fraudulent billing, only to be rehired when the Bush Cheney DoD renewed its contract in 2001. KBR is the largest government contractor in Iraq, earning more than $20 billion dollars for logistical support of troops alone, often in no-bid contracts riddled with obvious but overlooked fraud.

Until recently, the DoD was deaf to the stories coming out of Iraq about “plume crud” and “black goop,” as soldiers have termed the dark slime that those living and working close to the burn pits’ black smoke blow out of their noses and cough, spit, and vomit from their mouths, or the reports of breathing problems, cancers, and deaths. But they clearly knew about the practices and its problems of the pits its contractors had built and continued to run.  As early as 2006 Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander Darrin Curtis warned senior officials about the risks of the largest burn pit at the Balad Airbase 70 kilometers north of Baghdad. In a memo he titled “Burn Pit Health Hazards,” he wrote, “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 in place.” Curtis cited the toxic byproducts of the burning waste, including benzene, arsenic, sulfuric acid, and other carcinogens, as “an acute health hazard for individuals” and the smoke itself as a possible “chronic health hazard.” In 2008, the Pentagon distributed a burn pit fact sheet to troops, acknowledging some carcinogens in 2004-2006 air samples reported in classified studies, but asserting that “the potential short- and long-term risks were estimated to be low due to the infrequent detections of these chemicals….Based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance, long-term health effects are not expected to occur from breathing the smoke.” The fact sheet failed to mention that 2007 air samples found toxic particulates, including dioxin, benzene, cyanide, and arsenic at as many as six times the allowable levels.

Thanks to courageous soldiers, their families, veterans groups, and reporters, the truth is emerging. Kelly Kennedy, a reporter for the independent Gannett Co newsweekly the Military Times,  first challenged the official story in the press, in October 2008, in one of a long series of compelling pieces on troop health and burn-pits that this week earned her Columbia University School of Journalismn’s prestigious Oakes Prize certificate of merit. In her article “Burn Pit at Balad Raises Health Concerns,” Kennedy wrote that though the government denies it, “tens of thousands of troops, contractors and Iraqis” may have been exposed to “cancer-causing dioxins, poisons such as arsenic and carbon monoxide, and hazardous medical waste.” The story stimulated a strong response among sick troops, as Kennedy reported in a Decemeber 2008 follow-up piece: “Though military officials say there are no known long-term effects from exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 100 service members have come forward to Military Times and Disabled American Veterans with strikingly similar symptoms: chronic bronchitis, asthma, sleep apnea, chronic coughs and allergy-like symptoms. Several also have cited heart problems, lymphoma and leukemia.” Kennedy quoted Kerry Baker, DAV legislative director and collaborator in information gathering:  “Everything seems to be pointing opposite to what the Defense Department is saying.”

President Obama has said that the White House is paying attention and that he will make sure that the burn pits don’t become another Agent Orange. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has made similar remarks: “How do we change what has been the 40-year journey of Agent Orange, the 20-year journey of Gulf War Illness, and prevent a similar journey for burn pit smoke?” Congress has begun to address the matter with legislation that mandates regular reporting on the burn pits and examination of alternatives but no shutting down of the 80 pits still operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has held out the longest, insisting till now that no evidence of health problems exists beyond temporary irritations. Last month, R. Craig Postlewaite, the Pentagon’s acting director of force health protection and readiness, stated that “some people probably have suffered some untoward health effects.” By Postlewaite’s calculation, 56 percent of troops returning from war zones report exposure to burn-pit smoke.

According to Susan Burke, the Virginia attorney initiating the class action suit, the burn-pit maladies are pulmonary for the most part. Her co-counsel, the DC office of the law firm Motley, Rice, cites on its website some 25 problems including asthma; bronchitis; cancer of the brain, bone, skin, and blood; infections; unexpected weight loss; sleep apnea; and weeping lesions. In their motion to dismiss, KBR maintains that no evidence links smoke exposure to such conditions. But more importantly, they claim, it has little to do with them since they were only following the command of its trusted leaders. The Obama administration has taken steps to trim KBR’s wings and its multi-million dollar over-charges. But KBR continues to be the government’s largest military contractor, and how the two sort out liability for the massive level of troop illnesses emerging from our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan remains to be seen. If the case goes forward, KBR has said in its recent court motions, they would ask the court to “substitute” the military’s judgment “across numerous matters,” law360.com reports. What such legalese means is unclear but intriguing, leaving us to wonder if KBR means to point a finger or continue to work hand-in-hand with an old friend.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1