KPBS (CA); January 25, 2010
BYLINE: Megan Burke and Maureen Cavanaugh
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are a number of U.S. veterans who report developing strange symptoms since they've returned home from combat. Now, if that sounds like a story you've heard before, you're right, but it seems to be happening again. Very much like Gulf War syndrome or Vietnam vets who claimed to have been injured by the use of Agent Orange, some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have developed disturbing, even deadly diseases that they blame on their exposure to materials in the war zone. This time, some are tracing the source of the illness to huge open pit fires. Here to tell us more about the disturbing health conditions being reported and what the VA is doing about it is my guest, reporter Matthew LaPlante. His three-part series “Sickened by Service” ran this month in the Salt Lake Tribune. And good morning, Matthew. Thank you for joining us.
MATTHEW LAPLANTE (Reporter, Salt Lake Tribune): Good morning. Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our audience also to join the conversation. Were you, or do you know, an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran exposed to fumes from burn pits? Do you know about any diseases you think resulted from those pits? Call us with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Matthew, how did you find out about these burn pits?
LAPLANTE: Well, I was in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and while I was there both times, I made a visit to Balad Airbase, which is the largest airbase in the region. And if you were in Balad at any time between – well, really at any time at all since the war began, you knew about the burn pits because you could see the thick, black plume of smoke rising into the air, you could smell the scent. It was like a burning plastic or maybe a burning rubber smell kind of maybe mixed with diesel and kerosene and you could taste it. I mean, you would go to sleep at night and you would have this thick film on the roof of your mouth that tasted very much like that smell smelled. So – But I must say that it’s to my great embarrassment that given all the other more immediate hazards that anyone who was in the war zones at that time was facing, I did not see that as an immediate threat.
LAPLANTE: I did not see that as a problem. I looked at it and I kind of shrugged my shoulders, and it wasn’t until several years later that I kind of came to realize just how very bad that was for service members’ health and the health of anyone who was exposed to those smoke and – to that smoke and fumes.
CAVANAUGH: Now, when we say a huge open pit – fire pit or burn pit, what are we talking about in terms of size and capacity?
LAPLANTE: Well, the total pit size is about 10 acres. You can see, and, in fact, if you zero in on Balad Airbase on Google Earth, you can see the pit. I mean, it’s big enough that it’s very obvious from satellite imagery where it is. It’s in the northern tip of that base. This is the biggest one in the region, but it’s certainly by no means the only one. There are dozens, if not scores, of these enormous pits scattered throughout the theater in Iraq and Afghanistan . The one in Balad took in hundreds of tons of trash every week. This was – They would get rid of vehicle parts and used uniforms and Balad has the largest theater hospital, so they would discard of medical waste, including amputated limbs. There was chemicals discarded there. There were batteries discarded there. And little of this is really contested and the military acknowledges that that’s how they got rid of quite a bit of their trash since the war began in 2003 in Iraq and also in smaller quantities, in smaller operations, in Afghanistan .
CAVANAUGH: Why burn pits and not incinerators? Did they tell you?
LAPLANTE: Well, you know what, today, as a matter of fact, there are quite a few incinerators in Iraq and Afghanistan . Most of the pit operation in Balad has been replaced with incinerators, largely in response to the health concerns of people. But even though this would seem to be a very obvious thing, one of the things that military officials were contending with is the idea that these wars were not supposed to last as long as they lasted. And so for the first few years of the war, certainly for the first year of the war, there was a sense that, as Donald Rumsfeld has promised at the time, we would go in, it would take months to finish up the business, and then we would leave. And then in the early years of the war, you know, there was a very large reluctance on the part of the administration and the military to acknowledge that this was not going to be a short war, that victory wasn’t just around the corner, that it was, in fact, getting worse. And doing things like creating very expensive pieces of infrastructure like incinerators would have sent the wrong message about how long the United States was planning to be in Iraq and Afghanistan . And so it wasn’t until finally we all kind of collectively shrugged our shoulders and acknowledged that, yes, indeed, these were going to be long wars, part of the long wars, it’s called by some people in the Pentagon now, that they started making efforts to put incinerators in the war zone. But even today, you know, seven years after the beginning of the war in Iraq , eight years after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan , even today, there are still many open area burn pit operations still going on. They have not been replaced by incinerators.