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“They Really Don’t Want This Out”:
The Biggest Iraq War Scandal That Nobody’s Talking About

By Liam O'Donoghue

The first 10 pages of “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers” will rip your heart out. In the opening chapter of this new book, Joseph Hickman, a former U.S. Marine and Army sergeant, shares the brief and tragic life story of one Iraq War veteran. In a nutshell, a healthy young man shipped off to Iraq, was stationed at a U.S. military base where he was exposed to a constant stream of toxic smoke, returned home with horrible respiratory problems, was denied care by the VA, developed brain cancer and died.

Thousands of soldiers have suffered similar fates since serving in the vicinity of the more than 250 military burn pits that operated at bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Many who haven’t succumbed to their illnesses yet have passed along the legacy of their poisoning to their children. “The rate of having a child with birth defects is three times higher for service members who served in those countries,” according to the book.

The impact on local civilian populations is even more widespread. Although collecting data in these war-ravaged areas is extremely difficult, the studies that have been conducted reveal sharp increases in cancer and leukemia rates and skyrocketing numbers of birth defects. The toxic legacies of these burn pits will likely continue to devastate these regions for decades.

So what are the “burn pits”? When the U.S. military set up a base in Iraq or Afghanistan, instead of building incinerators to dispose of the thousands of pounds of waste produced each day, they burned the garbage in big holes in the ground. The garbage they constantly burned included “every type of waste imaginable” including “tires, lithium batteries, asbestos insulation, pesticide containers, Styrofoam, metals, paints, plastic, medical waste and even human corpses.”

Here’s where the story gets even more infuriating. As a result of the privatization of many aspects of military operations, the burn pits were operated by Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR), a former subsidiary of Halliburton, the company where Dick Cheney was CEO before ascending to the White House. During the Bush administration, Halliburton made nearly $40 billion from lucrative government contracts (despite many corruption scandals), Dick Cheney and his corporate allies got incredibly rich, and the soldiers whose lives have likely been destroyed by this reckless operation… are pretty much screwed.

Top officials, including then-Gen. David Petraeus, initially denied that the burn pits were a health hazards, but mounting medical evidence contradicting the Defense Department’s position have brought this scandal into the spotlight. However, in a pattern that follows how Vietnam vets suffering from Agent Orange were treated, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny medical coverage to most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking treatment for burn pit-related illnesses. Joseph Hickman is hoping that his new book will help change that.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

This is one of the most devastating scandals to come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so why hasn’t it gotten more attention?

I think the Department of Defense does its best to squash this story and so does Veterans Affairs. They really don’t want this out at all. When the registry [for victims of burn pit pollution] came out, they even squashed the registry. It took them a year and a half past their due date to get it up, to actually have it running.

If there were one thing that had the potential to bring it into the spotlight more, it was  Beau Biden’s recent death from brain cancer. As you write in the book, we obviously can’t be certain, but it seems that there is a very clear link between his death and his service in Iraq working in the vicinity of these burn pits and breathing in these hazardous fumes. Why wasn’t this enough to bring attention to this issue?

I don’t know if it was political or not. When Beau died I was right in the middle of heavy research into the burn pits. I tried to contact his wife, Hallie, about two months after his death and I tried to contact the vice president; neither one would respond to me. It could have been my timing, too. I called at an awful time, really.

This just happened last June, and maybe they haven’t absorbed it all yet. There are similarities to where he was stationed and how people died and it just brought up a lot of red flags for me.

I think the case that you lay out in the book is pretty convincing. Although these wars started during the Bush years, Obama is now in his eighth year in office and still has not made this issue a priority. How much fault should we place on the Obama administration for the failure to address this problem?

I think he holds a lot of responsibility for it, but I think the biggest problem is Congress and the Senate. Because when a soldier gets sick the first thing he [or she] does is write his congressman or senator if he’s not getting results from the VA or DoD. They still follow the chain of command, so that’s their last complaint, and the senators and congressmen have just really dropped the ball on this completely. And I think that is totally politically motivated, because a lot of these senators and congressmen they’re reaching out to are in bed with defense contractors.

You specifically mention Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson as an example of a Tea Party politician who campaigned on a flag-waving platform of  building a strong military and supporting the troops, but then when he got into office voted to cut VA funding and didn’t make good on his promises. We’re seeing even more of this chest-thumping patriotism now in the presidential primary campaigns. Have you heard any of the presidential candidates address the topic of burn pits or the VA in a meaningful way, other than to use the VA as an attack line against Obama?

No, none of them has mentioned the burn pits or soldiers suffering from the burn pits at all. Bernie Sanders has done a lot for veterans, probably more so than any other candidate, and he still hasn’t addressed this issue, either.

You mention in the book that there were a few members of the military and KBR contractors that voiced concerns about the health hazards posed by the burn pits. Why was it so difficult for them to get their voices heard?

One KBR employee was really harassed badly by KBR for coming forward. He felt he was threatened and he had a really hard time talking about it with me. He was really worried about repercussions. That’s really a reflection of the Obama administration. They haven’t defended whistle-blowers at all. They’ve attacked them. Obama’s presidency has been extremely disappointing in that area.

I was surprised to learn in the book that Chelsea Manning was actually responsible for leaking some of the information about how the military was aware of the burn pit health hazards earlier than they let on.

Several soldiers were absolutely shocked and surprised that Chelsea Manning released that document. It changed many of their minds about her. The military, for the most part, is a lot of Republicans or very conservative people. But when I shared this with several soldiers, it absolutely changed a lot of their views on Chelsea Manning. I said, “Look, she didn’t always give up things that were damaging to our country. These are really things that the administration doesn’t want you to see.” She showed that we got sick from the burn pits.

You describe in the book how independent researchers have found a huge increase in birth defects, leukemia, cancer and other carcinogenic diseases among Iraqi and Afghan civilians living near the burn pits, which you contrast with the controversial World Health Organization report that contradicted those findings. There has been speculation that the U.S. used political pressure to influence the WHO report, which was quickly contradicted by several reputable medical journals. Has there been any confirmation or strong evidence in support of this theory?

There’s a large group of epidemiologists that absolutely believe that that report was influenced by the U.S. government. Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a widely respected environmental toxicologist, has been there and seen the birth defects and how we literally destroyed that country with pollution. There are birth defects there that don’t even have medical names yet.

One of the frustrating things you describe is that the Pentagon violated their own regulations but they still can’t be held legally responsible. As you say in the book, “under federal law the military can’t be held accountable, so nobody is to blame.” If no one can be held to account, what kind of positive outcomes can we hope for?

They started the burn pit registry, which is modeled off of the Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome registries, which are failures. So we modeled it off a failed program. It took 27 years for the Agent Orange Vietnam veterans to actually receive any type of care, and they still don’t get the care they should. These numbers we’re talking about with the burn pits and Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome … they’re so large that the government knows that if they treated all these soldiers the cost would be unbelievable. It’s something that they can’t afford, and I think that’s why it takes decades for them to treat them.

The best way to help the soldiers involved in this is to actually believe what they’re saying. They believed in the soldiers when they sent them off to war. They believed they would go over there and get the job done, but when they come home and they complain of illnesses, they suddenly question their integrity. And that just has to stop.

So there’s this dynamic where it’s in the VA’s interest to deny that soldiers really have these health problems in order to protect itself from being liable for covering those treatments. There are accounts in your book of hostile VA doctors telling patients that they’re healthy, but then independent doctors contradicting the VA’s diagnosis. Where does that culture come from?

It’s because it’s a delayed casualty. It isn’t a limb missing or a bullethole in a person or something where there’s actually proof that their injury is service-connected, meaning they got their injury from the time they were in combat. So when they come in with these respiratory issues or cancers, it’s very hard for the soldier to prove that, “Hey, I got this on the battlefield,” because it’s not an injury that they received from their enemy.

But the numbers show that there is a real pattern. You found the proof, so the denial is hard to grasp in the face of such mountains of evidence.

Yeah, it’s to the point now where they can’t deny it, but they still fight tooth and nail not to give these veterans benefits. It’s just a budget issue now, and the soldiers are suffering from it.

VA reform has been a big issue for some time now, so why haven’t we seen much progress or improvement?

The VA has always been under-budgeted. The budget is just not there for them. Up until two years ago they were using a computer system that was – they didn’t have Windows, they didn’t have iOS, they were using stuff from 1985, 1986. This was just two years ago. That’s a fact. They needed a complete upgrade. It’s always been under budget, since I’ve been going there.

There’s a lawsuit against KBR out there right now, and the biggest hurdle for the KBR lawsuit is [that] DoD will not speak against KBR for their misuse of the burn pits. And you can’t sue the government under the Feres Doctrine. A soldier can’t sue the government for his injuries, but he can sue a private contractor. But as long as the U.S. government stays solid on the issue and won’t speak out against KBR, it kind of creates a legal limbo where it’s their word against this massive corporation. The best testimony they could have is DoD saying, “Yes, you mistreated these burn pits.”

But really, can the DoD even do that? Because they didn’t have any regulation in place for seven years on what they could burn or where they should be located or anything else. The DoD staying solidly aligned with KBR while soldiers are suffering is criminal.

Did the military’s use of private contractors like KBR in some ways help to facilitate this crisis?

KBR operated many of the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are some regulations for contractors, but they’re not nearly as stringent, and the penalties are not nearly as harsh for contractors as they are for soldiers. So these contractors were super-careless with these burn pits. There were burning anything and everything in them, and they didn’t care and they didn’t think they could be held accountable.

They’ve grown to the point where they feel that the government can’t operate without them. These companies have that arrogance. Contractors that were operating the burn pits in Iraq were actually told by their headquarters, “If they’re going to investigate us over these burn pits, don’t worry about it. If we pull out, they can’t run this base.”

Have you ever heard Dick Cheney comment on this issue? His connections to Halliburton and KBR put him in a uniquely qualified position.

Never once. Never once. I looked for anything like that and couldn’t find anything.

End note: A portion of the proceeds from sales of “The Burn Pits” will be donated to the nonprofit organization www.burnpitspits360.org

Liam O'Donoghue is Salon’s communications director. He writes about what’s happening at Salon and manages Salon’s social media assets. You can follow him on Twitter @Liam_Odonoghue.

Copyright © 2016 Salon Media Group, Inc.

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