‘X-File’ Vet May Be Link to Burn-Pit Truth

by , June 30, 2009

Yesterday, Edward Adams was an X-File, but tomorrow he might be the critical link between the toxic plumes rising recklessly from U.S. Army installations in the war zone and the growing number of veterans crippled by unexplained nerve, heart, and respiratory damage back home.

That’s because unlike any other known case, according to advocates, Adams was recently told by a board of military doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii that his health anomalies – including the appearance of countless holes or "cysts" riddling the tissue around his lungs and an aorta that has shrunk to half its normal size in three months – "probably is related to the exposure to burn pits in Iraq."

This is coming at a time when the Pentagon has so far maintained there are "no significant short or long-term health risks" from the massive burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, which incinerate, in open air, everything from medical waste to plastics, dining hall trash, rubber, lithium batteries, petroleum products, and hardware, causing a noxious, jet-black plume and huge clouds over the area.

Adams, 33, went into the Army just five years ago a healthy, athletic young man. Six months into his 15-month deployment to Iraq (his first and only one), he was getting by like an out of shape middle-aged couch potato. He told Antiwar.com in a recent interview that his breathing "just got worse and worse. I would run a quarter mile and I was just wasted. I was just done."

Describing the smell from the ominous pit at Camp Speicher where he was stationed as "just horrendous," he said he wasn’t the only one experiencing problems in his unit, but their queries about a possible connection to the black dragon went unanswered, even hastily dismissed, by base doctors. It wasn’t until doctors at Tripler Hospital began looking into his case that the grim consequences began to emerge.

After an MRI was scheduled to determine what exactly was causing Adams’ breathing problems, which got worse, not better, after returning home, his doctors called him immediately. "They told me my lungs were filled with hundreds of tiny holes," Adams said. "It looked completely different from anything they’ve ever seen before."

"So that sucked."

After Adams was diagnosed with what doctors now call "interstitial lung disease," a CAT scan revealed that his abdominal aorta – one of the five major blood lines pumping to and from his heart – had reduced in size by half from the time of the MRI, about three months before. Doctors called it "aortal stenosis of undetermined etiology" and told him they "don’t know if you have one year or 50 years to live." Basically, "cross your fingers that it don’t get any worse," Adams recalled.

He was in the process of getting his medical discharge from the Army in June. "Right there, in black and white," he said, referring to the addendum to his medical board records, which were shared with Antiwar.com, "it says that my condition was caused by contamination from the burn pits."

This diagnosis challenges the prevailing view [.pdf] at the Pentagon, based on test samples taken from and around the pits from 2004-2006, that declares there to be no short- or long-term health risks and no elevated cancer risks to personnel living around the pits. This study was supposed to subvert a damning 2006 Air Force-led analysis that suggested the burn pit site at Joint Base Balad in Iraq (which, at its peak, burned 270 tons of waste a day) was the "worst environmental site" investigators had ever encountered.

“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].

Members of Congress have been pressuring the Department of Defense (DOD) to release the raw data from its own study, but so far it has remained classified.

At this point, the growing number of veterans who are speaking out about their symptoms and making the connection to the ever burning refuse – some even recall amputated limbs being toss into the pits – are much more inclined to believe the earlier Air Force study and are starting to think the DOD deliberately ignored warning signs from the start.

"They knew these problems existed, and they ignored [them]. They could have been more responsible, from what I’ve seen," said Michael Maynard, 49, whose nerve damage is so bad he can no longer walk without the aid of the special braces the Veterans Administration recently supplied to him. Without those, this former runner and Fed-Ex employee requires a wheelchair.

"A lot of us complained while we were there in Iraq of the problems we would notice … our lungs and our throats were just burning and it felt like something was crawling all over our skin," charged Maynard, who was deployed with the Indiana National Guard for nearly a year in March 2004. It was during his time at the giant Camp Taji outside of Baghdad, where he said he and others approached the chain of command about the "thick noxious cloud" hovering above (and of which he can supply photographs). "The Army came back to us and said, no, it’s fine, we’ve tested it and the levels came back normal, and we just had to take their word for it."

Maynard told Antiwar.com that his doctors were also "scratching their heads" over the rapid deterioration of his legs when he arrived home. He believes "they basically threw me out the door" and "sat on my paperwork" from the medical board until his discharge came through. "Then they said, ‘You’re out, you’re the VA’s problem now.’"

While Maynard, a married father of four who was forced to quit his job when his legs gave out, is receiving nearly 100-percent disability benefits, the VA won’t make the connection between his condition (which also includes heart problems) and toxic contamination from the burn pits.

"The VA doctors aren’t saying anything. When I ask them how this happened to me they say they don’t know. I don’t know if they really don’t know or just don’t want to know," said Maynard, who does not regret his service but how he was treated afterward.

He believes that the Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, the major VA hub in Indiana, is already overwhelmed and stands to get worse as more veterans like himself seek out care. "The number of service members coming back sick and injured from Iraq and Afghanistan – plus the veterans from the other wars – it’s just inundated everyday, it’s just a huge crowd of people. You got to get there an hour or so early just to get a parking spot."

New VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in March the VA is already studying veterans experiencing chronic health problems and also pledged to work with the DOD to obtain data relevant to establishing possible correlations between toxic exposure and reported health effects.

But the military’s acknowledgment of harmful toxic contamination in-theater would no doubt trigger an avalanche of claims upon the DOD and VA medical and benefits systems. It could result in an official presumption that the symptoms shared by these soldiers were service-connected, so veterans would not have to fight for disability or priority health benefits, said Tom Tarantino, a veteran and policy expert with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association. "It took 40 years for them to get a presumptive rating for illnesses relating to Agent Orange," he noted.

Maybe that’s why advocates are readying for the possibility the Pentagon will oppose legislation introduced by U.S. Reps. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) that would require the secretary of defense to establish a "registry" to determine the toxicity levels and potential health hazards of each burn pit site in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. It would not only track everyone who may have been physically impacted, but also conduct outreach to affected individuals. It would also limit the use of open-air burn pits in the future.

More recently, Bishop and Shea-Porter helped to attach an amendment to the fiscal year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act that would restrict the use of burn pits in the war zone to 12-month periods. It also requires the secretary of defense to immediately begin a report on the "health and environmental compliance standards" for solid waste disposal in-theater and to identify existing surveillance systems to track exposures.

The defense authorization bill cleared the House on Thursday. A similar amendment could be attached on the Senate side. If not, advocates hope the House language will survive conference.

Bishop said in June that their efforts were the result of "disturbing reports … coming to light every day" from individuals about the burn pits and "the toll they are taking." He started the Burn Action Center online to encourage individuals to share their stories and health questions. As of this writing, there have been 51 separate testimonies.

According to officials at the Pentagon, the DOD has a policy not to comment on pending legislation.

Meanwhile, at the Disabled American Veterans office, there have been more than 400 inquiries from vets with moderate to severe symptoms of contamination, according to associate national legislative director Kerry Baker. Of those, there are 80 with newly diagnosed cancer. In March, Baker said 16 individuals in the database have since died.

"If that rate holds, it would be astronomical," he said. "We hope we’re wrong, but we think this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Unfortunately, the military has typically lingered on the wrong side of the truth when it comes to ill veterans, Baker added. "They have historically fought it and denied it and acted like there is no reason for concern, right up until the last Gulf War," he said, noting the ongoing struggle of vets suffering from symptoms now collectively known as Gulf War Illness.

In recent reports, Pentagon officials have insisted they reduced the open-air burning by 50 percent by installing incinerators at Balad. But sources who spoke to Antiwar.com say some 24 incinerators were supposed to go online in Iraq and Afghanistan, but as of today, only a few are up and running. "They are just starting to phase this in," said Tarantino. "That’s the fix. Burn pits are a field expedient measure, usually for a little while; it’s not supposed to be a permanent solution."

The U.S. was not supposed to be in a permanent state of war overseas, either, but apparently it is. So no one really knows the environmental and health effects from the prolonged spewing of this poisonous brew into the air.

"Iraq is a toxic waste dump, and I believe we have done a lot to cause that," said Maynard, who laments his loss of independence and his inability to "throw a ball and to roughhouse" with his kids.

"There is going to be a lot more people coming home sick, guaranteed."

So far, the Pentagon isn’t saying much publicly. But maybe the case of "X-File" Edward Adams, with his hole-ridden lung tissue and shrinking aorta, might force it into action.

Correction: This article originally referred to “Joint Base Balad in Afghanistan.” Balad is in Iraq.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos