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The Burn Pits
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers
by Joseph Hickman
(Skyhorse Publishing, 2016)
For a number of years, we have believed that Vietnam veterans were poisoned by Agent Orange, and the vets who have conducted the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan had their very own unique plague in the after-effects from Depleted Uranium-tipped projectiles. We haven't heard much about DU recently. Maladies experienced by our soldiers after exposure to our military's chemical warfare just don't command much attention in America's corporate-owned media. Hopefully, that is about to change.
"The Burn Pits" is a small book, less than three-quarters of an inch thick including its hard cover, but it tells an enormous story. It seems our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been forced to live in an environment of thick, black smoke from the burn pits, which are giant open holes where the American military has burned the waste over the past fifteen years of our adventures in those two countries. Now, it should be pointed out that military installations in the US of A. are required to use environmentally-friendly incinerators to burn their garbage, but that requirement was never imposed upon our occupations in the Middle East.
When the US first moved large numbers of American troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, it was soon clear that they were generating an enormous amount of waste, garbage, and trash. The military did not feel their highly-trained and all-volunteer soldiers should be relegated to garbage men or women, so the Pentagon turned to KBR to construct burn pits where the accumulated trash of war could be incinerated. KBR is, of course, a huge defense contractor, formerly Kellogg, Brown, & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton Corporation. KBR does many millions of dollars of business with the Pentagon, and is considered a go-to company whenever the military needs something done. So, back in 2003, the Pentagon tasked KBR with creating and maintaining burn pits to dispose of the trash from our wars against terror in the Middle East. Surprisingly, those contracts only required the burn pits, with no mention of future plans to construct environmentally friendly incinerators at our bases! KBR brought out their bulldozers and dug big pits, threw in all the trash, covered the mess in jet fuel and tossed in a match. According to "The Burn Pits," the wastes that were burned in these pits, day and night, for years, included petroleum, human waste, hazardous electronic wastes, office equipment, glues and adhesives, solvents, treated wood, rubber, pesticides, asbestos, styrofoam, plastics, aerosol cans, gas cylinders, explosives, batteries, medical waste, paint and paint thinners, human body parts, and animal cadavers. The pit at Camp Taji in Iraq burned approximately fifty tons of waste per day, and the one at Balad Air Base disposed of roughly one hundred and forty-seven tons per day. In virtually every case, the burn pits were constructed in close proximity to barracks, mess halls, work stations, medical facilities, and areas where large numbers of American soldiers and local civilians were forced to live in thick, black, pungent smoke clouds day and night. To make matters even worse, a number of American bases were actually built upon the sites of former Iraqi chemical weapons factories or storage units. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this entire affair is the author's interview with retired Lt. Colonel Rick Lamberth, who had been in charge of construction of the burn pits and also the rebuilding of Iraqi bases for his employer at the time, KBR. Lambreth was reluctant to speak with Hickman, as he had "received threats from KBR telling him to keep his mouth shut." Lambreth states that there were no soil samples taken, or testing of any kind, of the sites where American bases would be constructed. Once the bases were manned by thousands of Americans and the burn pits were operational day and night, Lambreth says no air quality tests were ever conducted. The author is unable to point towards any official acknowledgement of the problem by the DOD or the VA. Suffering veterans who have submitted claims have had them denied. Hickman suggests that upwards of 59,000 American troops have suffered serious illnesses from breathing the smoke from the burn pits, including a strong possibility that Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau, who died of brain cancer after serving in the atmosphere of dense black smoke in Iraq.
It is not surprising that American troops and Iraqi and Afghani civilians began to feel sick. Hickman gives numerous examples of Americans who have suffered, and even died, from a range of cancers. While the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) deny that there is any service connection to their illnesses, a Dr. Anthony Szema at Stony Brook University School of Medicine has investigated and found high levels of titanium in the lungs of veterans who had been stationed at Camp Victory, and he found that vets who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have far higher rates of cancers and leukemia than vets who were never sent to those countries. Also, he found that those vets were having children with birth defects at a rate three times greater than vets who had never been to those countries. At the rear of the book, the author lists over 160 symptoms and diseases that are occurring at significantly higher rates among the soldiers who have lived in the black clouds of smoke from the burn pits. There are no statistics available to tell us the effects of the smoke on the people of Afghanistan or Iraq, but it can be assumed that they are also affected. The real scope of this tragedy is unknown. Unfortunately, our government and the companies it employs have shown that they intend to keep it that way.
When we sent our young people to the Middle East to fight the War on Terror, it was very common to see vehicles traveling the streets and highways of America sporting yellow stick-on ribbons exhorting us to "Support Our Troops." Of course, those stickers were never allowed on military or government vehicles. If America's soldiers and veterans are ever going to get a fair shake from the DOD and the VA, it will be due to the efforts of reporters like Joseph Hickman, and the relentless pressure from veterans' organizations. "The Burn Pits" is an important book that should be on the shelf of every high school library across the United States.
Latest news: On March 3rd, 2016, Reader Supported News revealed that the Department of Defense has refused to carry "The Burn Pits" in its stores, which include all Army and Air Force exchanges, or PXs. The book is new, but it is already an Amazon bestseller, and has garnered many favorable reviews. The publisher calls DOD's action an "outrageous and blatant example of government censorship" and suggested that the DOD has a responsibility to "do everything within their power to inform returning veterans about these potential health hazards instead of covering it up." He describes the DOD's refusal to make the book available to today's active duty service men and women representative of "the military's ongoing efforts to cover up a problem that is developing into the Agent Orange scandal of Iraq and Afghanistan." The many Vietnam veterans who read this newspaper will be sympathetic but not surprised. "The Burn Pits" deserves to be in every high school library across America, located nearby to the recruiting brochures. "An Army of One" has long been a curious recruiting slogan, and with Joseph Hickman's superb book THE BURN PITS, the potential enlistee might find a dire warning about how little the US government and its military really cares about the individuals we call our troops.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of ...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam. First published by Macmillan in 1985, it is still available at most bookstores.