Thousands of U.S. military personnel who served on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan recall the dense black smoke from burn pits where everything from IEDs to human waste was incinerated.
Now many have died, and more are gravely ill. Those battling a grim menu of cancers, as well as their loved ones and advocates, trace their condition to breathing in the toxic fumes they say could be the most recent wars' version of Agent Orange or Gulf War Illness.
“The clouds of smoke would just hang throughout the base,” Army Sgt. Daniel Diaz, who was stationed at Joint Base Balad, in Iraq's Sunni Triangle from 2004-2005, told FoxNews.com. “No one ever gave it any thought. You are just so focused on the mission at hand. In my mind, I was just getting ready for the fight.”
Diaz returned from duty in 2008. A year later, he started developing health problems including cancer, chronic fatigue and weakness, neuropathy and hypothyroidism. Nearly every base he was stationed at during his four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had burn pits nearby - and pungent smoke everywhere.
“When I was stationed at Camp Wright, there was one 20-30 feet from our rooms,” he says. “No one ever questioned whether it was dangerous having it so close. Not even once.”
During the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the burn pit method was adopted originally as a temporary measure to get rid of waste and garbage generated on bases. Everything was incinerated in the pits, say soldiers, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. The items were often set ablaze with jet fuel as the accelerant.
Joint Base Balad, where Diaz was partially stationed, burned up to 147 tons of waste per day as recently as the summer of 2008, according to The Army Times.
The incineration of the waste generated numerous pollutants including carbon monoxide and dioxide—the same chemical compound found in Agent Orange, which left many Vietnam vets sick after it was used as a defoliant.