Monday, August 10, 2009

The Burn Pits of Iraq and Aghanistan

As we approach another 4th of July weekend, there are news stories about veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering terrible diseases because of exposure to “burn pits.” These burn pits are not some fiendish enemy weapon. They are the creation of contractors hired to “support the troops,” paid with American taxpayer dollars.

Massive open-air pits in Iraq and Afghanistan are used to incinerate medical waste, including human body parts; garbage, plastics; lithium batteries; unexploded ordnance; miscellaneous hardware; gas cans; entire humvees; and building rubble, including asbestos insulation. The burn pits generate black, toxic smoke breathed daily by military men and women serving in the area.

Katie Connolly reports for Newsweek that about 200 veterans have joined in a lawsuit against KBR, Inc. KBR is the former Kellogg Brown & Root, at one time a subsidiary of Halliburton, of which former Vice President Dick Cheney was once CEO. KBR employs more American private contractors and holds a larger contract with the U.S. government than does any other firm in Iraq, according to Wikipedia. By October 2003, seven months after the beginning of the military action in Iraq, KBR’s bill to taxpayers had already reached $1.6 billion. There was no readily available tally of the total value of contracts with KBR since.

The veterans say KBR is responsible for the vast burn pits that left them with a host of diseases, including kidney disease, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory diseases, painful skin conditions, multiple cancers, heart disease, debilitating headaches, and neurological problems. One of the plaintiffs is the widow of an Iraq War veteran who died last year of a brain tumor.

The Pentagon all along has taken the position that the burn pits are not a health hazard. However, recently a board of military doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii decided that the complex of diseases suffered by Spc. Edward Adams, 33, “is probably related to the burn pits in Iraq.” Army Times writer Kelly Kennedy reports that Spc. Adams was quartered downwind from a burn pit from July 2006 to October 2007. An MRI revealed that his lungs were filled with tiny black holes, cystic lesions, that at times have left him unable to breathe on his own.

Kennedy also writes that “annual cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among service members have risen 82 percent since 2001, to 24,555 last year, while cases of all other respiratory illnesses have risen 37 percent, to 28,276, Defense Department data show.”

Those veterans whose health is not yet compromised may still face consequences of the burn pits. Even decades from now, exposure to asbestos fibers from insulation thrown into the burn pits could develop into mesothelioma, an especially deadly form of lung cancer.

KBR’s work in Iraq has come under fire for reasons other than the burn pits. A Senate oversight committee has charged that faulty installation of electrical units in shower facilities resulted in the death of at least one soldier, Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth, who was electrocuted while showing at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad. Several other soldiers have died of electrocution, allegedly from improperly grounded electrical units installed by KBR.

In both cases — the burn pits and the electrical hazards — the Department of Defense has made excuses and denied the problem. This suggests the DoD is more concerned about the welfare of contractors than the welfare of soldiers, which is a concern in itself.

Two members of Congress, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH), are promoting a bill called the Military Personnel War Zone Toxic Exposure Prevention Act. The bill would require the DoD to identify soldiers at risk from the burn pits and investigate the effects of the burn pits. It also would prohibit the military from disposing of waste in a way that produces a dangerous level of toxins. Support of this bill is the least we can do for our military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Throughout our history Americans often have disagreed whether a particular war or military action was justified. But whatever our individual opinions, the fact remains that the soldiers and sailors who have fought in U.S. wars have done so because We, the People through our representative government have asked them to.

Beneath the usually self-serving political rhetoric about “supporting the troops” is a genuine responsibility we citizens owe to those serving in the military. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “war is hell” (or, rather, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell”), no doubt will be true as long as there is war. The troops risking our lives deserve more than our negligence.

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