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The Burn Pits

Posted on Jan 6, 2017

By H. Patricia Hynes

Hot Press

To see long excerpts from “The Burn Pits” at Google Books, click here.

“The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers”
A book by Joseph Hickman

They are called “this generation’s Agent Orange” — the open fire pits operated on over 230 U.S. military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan during our wars there. Every kind of waste — plastics; batteries; old ordnance; asbestos; pesticide containers; tires; biomedical, chemical and nuclear waste; dead animals; human feces; body parts; and corpses — was incinerated in them.

The word “incinerate,” suggesting an enclosed burning facility with pollution controls, is misleading. These barbaric burn pits were dug on military bases in the midst of housing, work and dining facilities, with zero pollution controls. Tons of waste — an average of 10 pounds daily per soldier — burned in them every day, all day and all night. Ash laden with hundreds of toxins and carcinogens blackened the air and coated clothing, beds, desks and dining halls, according to a Government Accounting Office investigation. The burn pits recklessly violated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defensewaste disposal regulations. And predictably, base commanders temporarily shut them down when politician and high-ranking generals came to visit.

Some of the U.S. bases were built on the remnants of Iraqi military bases that had been bombed and flattened by U.S. airstrikes. A handful of these bases — at least five — contained stockpiles of old chemical warfare weapons, among them the nerve agent sarin and the blistering agent mustard gas, used by Iraq against Iran and the Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s. The burn pits of these American military bases were placed and dug within the residue of chemical weapons, without first analyzing soil samples.

In his no-holds-barred book, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” former Marine and Army Joseph Hickman exposes the knowing contamination of thousands of soldiers stationed on bases with these lethal pits. After interviewing more than a thousand very sick veterans and military contractors about their exposures and investigating the non-response of the Pentagon, high-ranking military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Veterans Health Administration, the author concludes:

“In my experience as a noncommissioned officer, and after serving twenty years in the military, I can honestly say I would believe the words of a private over a general any day of the week.”

War veteran, Hickman has suffered chronic respiratory disease and memory loss since his exposure to the cauldron of toxic air contaminants, from oil well fire smoke to the vapors released from bombed chemical weapons storage sites.

Soon after Hickman retired from the military in 2009, he began to hear from veterans about medical illnesses they were suffering after being in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus began his unstinting investigation, interviewing veterans, military contractors and numerous medical health researchers who, in the void of Pentagon neglect, conducted extensive studies on the health effects of burn pit exposure. From the ailing veterans, he learned of medical claims denied by DOD and Veterans Health Administrationdoctors, who flatly refused to consider that their health problems were service-related, and insinuated that they were looking for a free ride. He discovered that veterans had more than 20 class-action lawsuits in 2008 and 2009 againstKBR Co., the DOD contractor that constructed the burn pits. And he recounts an incriminating conversation with a retired military officer turned KBR manager in charge of construction on Afghanistan and Iraq bases. The engineer characterized KBR as bragging “that they could get away with doing anything they wanted [e.g., no soil and air testing, shoddy construction, hazardous to health open fire pits, and so on] because the Army could not function without them.”

KBR, then a subsidiary of Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s former company), was the major Iraq War profiteer with no-bid contracts and a known master of “phantom charges” in its invoices to DOD. In self-defense KBR states matter-of-factly, to Hickman, that it constructed and operated the burn pits in conformance with contract specs and Army operational guidelines. In fact, this was true. In its haste for war, DOD flaunted its own environmental regulations and approved open-air burn pits — “huge poisonous bonfires” — on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor did DOD require the testing of soil, air or burn pit emissions to monitor the pollutionits soldiers were exposed to daily.

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