Really Don’t Want This Out”:
The Biggest Iraq War Scandal That Nobody’s Talking
By Liam O'Donoghue
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.
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.”
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.
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.
interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
military’s use of private contractors like KBR in
some ways help to facilitate this crisis?
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.
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.”
ever heard Dick Cheney comment on this issue? His
connections to Halliburton and KBR put him in a
uniquely qualified position.
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
O'Donoghue is Salon’s communications director. He
writes about what’s happening at Salon and manages
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