Anatomy of a Pentagon Lie

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.

The DoD Shuffle.

“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., a popular watchdog site, and recently spoke with “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.”

We certainly saw it with Agent Orange exposure among Vietnam veterans, and Persian Gulf Illness after the first Iraq War. Let’s face it – the government’s just getting around to compensating the so-called “Atomic Vets” from WWII! And now we’re seeing it with the countless men and women exposed to these toxic trash pits in Afghanistan and Iraq today (just a taste, here).

On Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which included provisions pushed by Democratic members of Congress that required the military to end the practice of burning hazardous waste – including batteries, tires, plastics, vehicle parts, Styrofoam, medical waste, petroleum and gas canisters – in the ubiquitous open air furnaces dotting the war’s landscape. The military was also told it must assess the health effects of burning waste, and develop plans for alternatives.

According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in October, “DOD Should Improve Adherence to Its Guidance on Open Pit Burning and Solid Waste Management,” the military has not only increased the number of burn pits in Afghanistan, it’s still “routinely” burning prohibited hazardous waste materials and isn’t even taking samples of burn pit emissions – in violation of its own regulations. Conveniently, the lack of sampling further restrains the effort to find out what’s making so many soldiers sick.

“The health impacts of burn-pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, mainly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures,” the report’s authors wrote.

DoD officials repeatedly told reporters in 2008 and 2009 that despite their reluctance to connect the reports of horrendous health symptoms – including sleep apnea, skin lesions, asthma, chronic respiratory and heart conditions, even cancer – with the pits, they were already reducing their use in the field.

They referred to a 2008 “Just the Facts” report (no longer available on the Army’s website) that insisted that a) health risks of the pit emissions were “low” and b) that three incinerators had already been brought into Balad Air Base (now Joint Base Balad) in Iraq, reducing the burn pit activity there by 50 percent (at its peak, the pit at Balad was burning 250 tons of trash a day in 2005).

Yet while the use of burn pits throughout Iraq indeed declined (as U.S. forces decreased from 130,000 to 50,000 over the course of the last year), according to the GAO they instead were popping up all over Afghanistan, where U.S. forces were expanding existing bases and surging in numbers.

According to the GAO’s study, conducted from November 2009 until last month, the number of DoD-acknowledged burn pits in Afghanistan went up from 50 in November 2009 to 184 in April 2010, to 251 this August. Many of them are being run by private companies like former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root as part of DoD’s massive LOGCAP (Logistics Civil Augmentation Program) contract.

A year ago, DoD officials claimed they had close to 30 new clean-burning incinerators online for both countries and planned to have 80 more installed. Now there are 20 in Afghanistan and 39 in Iraq as of this summer, according to the GAO. This would appear to be progress, but there are about 100 incinerators back-ordered, with delivery and installment taking up to a year in most cases, according to the GAO. And it didn’t help anyone’s health that many of the working incinerators didn’t go online for five years because of contractor disputes. Seems the cost outweighed the health benefits – no surprise there.

“With the DoD’s virtually unlimited resources to funds, technology and research there is no reason why functional incinerators could not have been delivered to Iraq within months of the invasion had the DoD been accountable and wanted to do the right thing to protect their soldiers and civilians,” charges Crawford.

Only two of the four major bases in Iraq that the GAO visited had incinerators in operation, and those that had them weren’t necessarily operating the machines according to the current guidelines regarding hazardous materials. On the other hand, the team was “unable to observe burn pit operations in Afghanistan.”

But while Pentagon policy ostensibly discourages long-term use of open-air burn pits, in practice it seems resigned to use them, ironically, because it says they are “cost effective.” From the GAO report:

“In April 2009, DOD reported to Congress that during military operations, open air burning will be the safest, most effective, and expedient manner of solid waste reduction until current research and development efforts produces better alternatives. DOD officials added that burn pits are the most cost-effective waste management practice and that incinerators are the best combustive alternative. However, DOD has not evaluated the benefits and costs of the waste management alternatives and compared them with the benefits and costs of its existing practices or taken into account all the relevant cost variables, including the environmental and long-term health impacts that burn pits could have on servicemembers, civilians, and host country nationals. …

“DOD officials said that, during wartime, environmental planning, including the management of waste, is not always a high-priority because of the operational and logistical pressures, safety and security risks, and the overall lack of resources available initially to manage waste. Furthermore, DOD officials reported that base planning and resource investment decisions are difficult, including planning and implementing resources to manage waste, because bases are in constant flux during wartime.”

We are well aware that burning trash has been a convenient method of waste management throughout the history of war. It is certainly not new. What is unprecedented is employing massive open-air trash burning pits on huge forward operating bases everyday for nearly 10 years. The materials that are being burned today are much more toxic than say, in World War II, and reflect the constant feeding, housing, building and maintenance of millions of soldiers and civilians and their equipment over time.

It is no surprise that the military bureaucracy is at once overwhelming and overwhelmed, and resistant to inconvenient adjustments and change. But this is what the military wanted ­ it chose to promote and fight this unending counterinsurgency, now the longest war in American history. It chose to build up these bases and airfields and to surge tens of thousands of more troops into the country. It chose to outsource things like Army logistics and support services ­ including waste management ­ to private companies whose primary interest is the shareholders back home.

Widows like Jill Wilkins are no Pollyannas. They see how long it took for the victims of Agent Orange exposure to get their due: in 1986 a massive class action lawsuit was settled against the maker of the Agent Orange herbicide, but it wasn’t until 1991, two decades after Vietnam, that Congress passed a law acknowledging a presumption of service-connection to diseases – like various forms of cancer and heart disease (the list is still expanding) – associated with herbicide exposure, and affording them appropriate VA benefits.

Wilkins’ husband, Air Force Maj. Kevin Wilkins, who as a medic performed triage on soldiers before they were airlifted from the battlefield, died in 2008 at the age of 51 of a massive brain tumor a year after his second tour of duty. His first tour in 2006 was spent at Balad, living and working quite near the big black plume (it was about the time the military was first “officially” alerted to the pit’s dangerous emissions). Jill has since started a Facebook page, which is now a hub for veterans and supporters with their own stories.

“I believe it’s huge,” she told “I don’t know if this is just the tip of the iceberg. This thing could have exposed so many people.” Balad at its peak had 20,000 people living on base. The Air Force rotated people in and out every six months, she said.

Wilkins is among nearly 300 veterans from 43 states suing KBR in a consolidated class action lawsuit filed in Maryland last spring. They allege the contractor created the conditions for toxic exposure and subsequent illnesses by ignoring regulations regarding burn pit operations on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. KBR has denied it even operated the pits on all of the bases cited, including Balad, and insists where it was in charge, it “performed waste disposal and water services pursuant to military direction and guidelines.”

But the GAO specifically says both the military and the contractors operating under the LOGCAP were indeed skirting, if not blatantly ignoring guidelines. The plaintiffs’ case will no doubt be assisted by witnesses like Rick Lamberth, a former KBR employee. In testimony to the U.S. Senate a year ago [.pdf],

he said he saw violations of federal environmental and Army regulations regarding waste removal “on a weekly basis” at the eight largest bases operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Balad, Taji, Bagram Airfield and Camp Phoenix.

“When I tried to report violations, I was told by the head of KBR’s Health Safety and Environment division to shut up and keep it to myself,” Lamberth testified.

DoD officials would no doubt like the growing number of veterans and their advocates to “shut up and keep it to themselves,” but the evidence that these burn pits are connected to various ghastly illnesses is becoming harder to ignore. Prepare for the drip, drip of Pentagon acknowledgments as their denials become untenable. We saw this after the Gulf War, when at first, the DoD was silent about possible toxic exposures and the complaints of ill vets – then it revealed that 300 to 400 had been directly involved in a possible leak of nerve gas when it exploded an Iraqi weapons depot in Kamisiyah in March 1991. A year later it confirmed that more than 100,000 soldiers were exposed to the nerve gas in the Kamisiyah leak. Today, recent studies have shown not only the toxic air in the field, but a combination of controversial Army inoculations and pesticides, have made Gulf War veterans sick.

Of course, this is all about liability for the Pentagon. While it happily spends trillions on wasteful, inefficient hardware and bloated, mismanaged defense contracts, the government will fight for decades to assure its responsibility for service-connected health care and compensation is at the very minimum.

The DoD Shuffle.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.