Ill Veterans Demand Answers

by , April 23, 2009

The poisonous black plume is getting more difficult for the government to ignore. So are the growing number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans hobbling around with the bodies of old men and women, needing breathing machines to sleep at night.

But taking a cue from their Gulf War I brethren, these recent vets aren’t prepared to wait 17 years to find out what the thick fog of smoke they encountered in the war did to their lungs, their hearts, their brains, and their life expectancies.

For it was nearly two decades before authorities finally recognized that Gulf War illness was not a mere phantom – that one in four of the nearly 700,000 who served in the six-month conflict from 1990 to 1991 were indeed suffering from exposure to dangerous toxins in-theater.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs of course were laboriously dragged, kicking and screaming, to that reality, while thousands of veterans, now mostly in their 40s, remain plagued by a range of acute symptoms, including chronic fatigue and pain, memory loss, persistent migraines, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal upset, and even more serious: deadly cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

A 450-page report issued in November by the congressionally mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses zeroed in [.pdf] on key causes of the exposure, such as the drug pyridostigmine bromide, which was given to the troops to guard against a chemical attack, and the pesticides used by the military almost everywhere in the Persian Gulf, including the dining and living tents and on the soldiers’ uniforms.

The 1991 destruction of the Kamishiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq by U.S. forces is also pinned to the possible nerve-gas exposure of 100,000 American soldiers – an event played down by the Pentagon for years after the war.

"Playing down" is something the military does effectively – at least long enough to buy time ahead of a public relations nightmare and the possibility of paying out millions in benefits and health care. As in the more recent cases of Gulf War illness and Vietnam-era Agent Orange exposures, this largely results in the tragic delay of proper diagnoses, treatments, and disability benefits.

But today the military may find that injured veterans are one step ahead of the usual obfuscations. Horror stories and photos shared online about the massive open burning of medical waste, chemicals, plastics, and hardware on various military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan, witnessed by tens of thousands of service members and contractors, have gone viral in recent months. These stories threaten to blow wide open the unchecked exposure of potentially thousands of people to dangerous levels of contaminants, like benzene, arsenic, Freon, cyanide, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ethylbenzene, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfuric acid, and xylene.

These "burn pits" are being blamed by veterans and advocates for extreme, lasting respiratory conditions and other serious illnesses, including cancer and multiple sclerosis in active-duty personnel and returning veterans, many of whom say they worked in range of one of the many open-air plumes for long periods and were reportedly told by brass that prolonged exposure was not harmful. What could possibly be the harm in breathing the jet-black emissions from a burning pyre of bio-hazardous waste (including amputated limbs), aluminum cans, Styrofoam, plastics, petroleum products, pressure-treated wood, lithium batteries, and rubber?

"In the wake of two deployments to southern Iraq, one to Camp Bucca, the other to LSA Adder, I have been left with the lung capacity of what seems like a compulsive chain-smoker. Running a mere fifty meters makes my lungs feel as though they’re on fire," wrote Steve Flowers, posting at the Burn Pits Action Center, a site developed by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), Kerry Baker of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and reporter Kelly Kennedy at Army Times. Kennedy’s stories have been at the forefront of the burn pit controversy.

"At LSA Adder, my work location was downwards only a couple hundred feet of the prevailing wind direction. We dealt with the same conditions in which the smoke became so thick even keeping our eyes open would be difficult," Flowers writes. "This is where I began to develop phlegm buildup so bad, I literally vomit it up each morning. Something I deal with to this day."

Retired Sgt. Kathy Vines:

"My National Guard unit and I arrived at LSA Anaconda (Balad Air Base), Iraq on 6 May 2003, having made the long, hot, and dusty convoy from Camp Virginia, Kuwait. … I noticed the thick, ugly, and heavy plumes of smoke on my first day there. … I worked outdoors the whole deployment.

"Back home again, I was diagnosed with COPD (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 of my left thigh. My diagnosis was fibromyalgia. Later, my doctor sent me to have a sleep study done. I failed it twice and was told I have Sleep Apnea, and MUST use the Positive Airways Pressure breathing machine at night."

"John," who wrote that he served at LSA Anaconda/Sustainer Army Airfield from March 2004 through February 2005, said he "was on a few details to unload stuff from vehicles at the burn pit there. Among the items that I recall shoving out the back of the truck were rat poison, hydraulic fluid, pressure-treated wood, and plastic. When the question was raised about what we were off loading for burning, the answer was along the lines of don’t worry about it as the heat will burn up the bad stuff so it isn’t a threat."

Jill Wilkins, wife of USAF Maj. Kevin E. Wilkins, RN, wrote that her husband died of a brain tumor a year after the end of his second deployment. His first tour in 2006 was at the Joint Base Balad (formerly Air Base Balad), the central logistics hub for the U.S. forces in Iraq and the scene of the most notorious burn pit, "where he cared for our critically injured soldiers and civilians."

"Kevin’s headaches started approximately 6 to 7 months after his first tour. In the beginning, he just treated his headaches with medication until the medication no longer responded. He had a CAT scan on March 26, 2008, and he died on April 1, 2008, from a brain tumor. The emergency room physician, who did the original CAT scan, asked Kevin if he had been exposed to any chemicals while on tour in Iraq, and Kevin told him about the ‘burn pit.’ The physician told Kevin that the chemicals from the burn pit may have caused the brain mass, and should be investigated."

That burn pit was investigated and declared a "health hazard" by the Air Force back in 2006, around the time Wilkins was treating patients. As of midsummer 2008, the pit was still in operation, handling 147 tons of waste per day.

"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," said chief investigator Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis, USAF, in his Dec. 2006 report [.pdf]. He quoted a member of his assessment team calling the pit "the worst environmental site I have personally visited."

Since then, however, military officials have downplayed the urgency of the health hazard. According to reporting from Kennedy, Air Force officials told her that after the Curtis memo, the "situation has improved," and "no substantive health problems have been definitively linked to the burn pit plume."

In December 2008, the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine issued a paper titled "Just the Facts" [.pdf], which said that initial sampling of the air around the Balad burn pit in 2004, 2005, and 2006 found an "occasional presence" of "dioxins, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds," but "the potential short- and long-term risks were estimated to be low due to the infrequent detections of these chemicals."

Three new incinerators were established at Balad by April 2008, reducing the volume of trash going into the burn pit by 50 percent (as much as 270 tons had been thrown in there daily at its height), according to "Just the Facts." Sampling of the air from January to April 2008 found the presence of chemicals typically found around trash-burning plants – "metals, volatile, organic compounds, dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic compounds" – and "within acceptable standards" (military exposure guidelines, or MEGs).

"One substance, particulate matter (PM), was found at levels above its MEG," the paper continued. "These levels are typical of those found both at other points on JBB [Joint Base Balad] and throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility due to blowing sand and dust."

Furthermore, health screening at the base found that "no significant short- or long-term health risks and no elevated cancer risks are likely among personnel deployed to Balad Air Base/JBB." The findings were then validated by the Defense Health Board.

There was understandably swift reaction to the paper. A letter signed by three U.S. senators and five members of Congress on March 30 was sent to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, asking him to make the underlying data in the DOD tests available (the data is currently classified) for independent review.

"Independent scientists who have reviewed the joint study of the Balad Air Base have informed us that there is a significant danger that veterans may become ill as a result of exposure to fumes emanating from such burn pits," the letter reads. Without the data, they continue, "it will be difficult to ascertain the potential health care implications of exposure to the fumes."

The lawmakers also suggested the government study the veterans "known to be exposed by burn pits" rather than "less reliable environmental reports." New VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has given assurances that the VA is already studying the health records of veterans and pursuing existing DOD data, including service members’ post-deployment surveys. It is also considering support for a parallel independent study.

Unfortunately, mistrust of the VA and DOD to take responsibility in the matter is palpable and growing. That officials would seek to mitigate the urgency of a potentially scandalous – and very expensive – health situation would not be unprecedented, veterans say.

"First, the DOD and VA must end their brutal practice of concealing information, delaying care, and denying benefits," charges Paul Sullivan, director of Veterans for Common Sense, in a recent e-mail exchange. "Second [they] must become transparent in how they investigate exposures, conduct research, provide health care, decide disability claims, and release robust information to Congress, the press, and veterans."

A tall order, but veterans like Sullivan mean to hold them to it. Despite "Just the Facts," there is a vigorous, extraordinarily detailed online conversation among sick veterans who had served at Balad or the many other burn pit sites (Balad alone was home to 30,000 people at any one time). A lawsuit was launched in December by a former civilian engineer against U.S. contracting behemoth Halliburton and its then-subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown, and Root, alleging the contractor put everyone working at Balad at risk of contamination. He blames the burn pit, unclean potable water, and spoiled food.

Joshua Eller was deployed for 10 months, beginning in February 2006, the suit alleges. He claims he developed skin lesions; suffered from vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea; and is still dealing with severe abdominal pain – and nightmares. He claims he witnessed a wild dog carrying off a human arm that had been dumped in the burn pit.

He is not alone. More than 150 testimonies have come through Military Times, and more than 180 to DAV, which is gathering stories for a database. "Of those," reports Kennedy, "48 have developed lymphoma, leukemia, or another form of cancer; 55 have pulmonary disorders, including asthma and asthma-like symptoms; and others report multiple sclerosis, sleep apnea, and heart problems. At least 16 veterans in the database have died."

At least with this level of engagement among veterans and advocates, there seems to be a commitment that past does not become prologue, that another 17 years don’t go by before these men and women get the help or recognition they deserve.

"We breathed it all, coughed up black lung cookies, were told not to worry about it, and [I] am sick now," writes Hans M. Nunemaker, who served at Balad in 2006, on the Burn Pits Action Center Web site.

"I took LOTS of photos and videos to document it, realizing it was going to be another Agent Orange/Gulf War Syndrome."

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos