There have been a lot of comparisons to the Wars in Afghanistan and Viet Nam, though much of it has been in the form of arguments for ending the current war based on lessons learned from that previous conflict. However, there is a much more concrete and dire comparison between the two to which even the most ardent anti-war demonstrators seem blind. In Viet Nam, it was called Agent Orange, and forty years later veterans exposed to this and other chemicals are still fighting for treatment and answers. In Afghanistan, they are called Burn Pits. The primary difference is the first was a weapon deployed against the environment and the second is ostensibly in defense of the environment.
In Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq and in the Gulf War, military bases have a serious problem with waste disposal. Particularly on very large bases with hospital complexes and on Forward Operating Bases in the more remote regions. What to do with the waste generated daily by several thousand people is a question for which there are no easy answers.
In the instance of medical waste, at least at the joint Camp Leatherneck/Camp Bastion, there are incinerators. But, they are used only for operating room waste according to a letter written by an Army captain to Military Times in June of this year. The captain states that all other waste, “including bloody bandages, medical supply waste and needles, were thrown into a burn pit less than 100 yards from (her) quarters.”
This is not only current common practice on bases all over Afghanistan, just as it was in Iraq, it is standard operating procedure. “Anything that can be moved into a Burn Pit is moved and burned. If it doesn’t want to burn, we pour something on it, like jet fuel or anything we can get our hands on to make it burn” reported one soldier who served both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The thinking is, he explained, it is better than burying it, and a whole lot cheaper than trucking it out.
With each passing year of the conflict in Afghanistan, there have been more and more soldiers and veterans seeking medical assistance with a range of strange and for them, never before seen symptoms and illnesses. To even the most casual observer, the correlation between severe respiratory issues and the proximity of these burn pits would be a natural assumption. However, the military has gone to great lengths to deny there is any connection.
In April 2011, an Army environmental engineer officer wrote a report stating that the burn pits at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan are the primary source of air pollution. This study was conducted as part of the Army’s investigation into the cause of so many soldiers seeking treatment subsequent to being stationed there. After hundreds of deaths and thousands of claims presented to the VA, some had begun to organize and get the attention of elected officials. The Army’s initial response was to do a controlled environmental study. But, in typical beaurcratic fashion, when the results contradicted the truths they had already decided upon, Joanne Rooney, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness wrote a letter to Congress dated July 23, 2012 that states defense officials do not believe that the burn pits were the main contributor to what she admits are elevated levels of airborne contaminants at Bagram.
In her letter, Rooney said the evidence is “still inconclusive regarding whether exposure to ambient pollution, including burn pit emissions, during deployments to Southwest Asia creates a long-term health risk for our deployed personnel.” She further states that some individuals who have experienced symptoms or illnesses may have “pre-existing health conditions or genetic factors”.
This is where the similarities for our Viet Nam era vets is the most telling. Those vets went for decades trying to get recognition, and therefore treatment for a host of illnesses related to their exposure to Agent Orange and other chemical during their service. Uncounted thousands died while the government they risked their lives to serve denied their claims, stalled any meaningful research and both literally and metaphorically buried the issue with lies, evasions and accusations that those who were sick were somehow responsible for their own illnesses.
Fortunately, the past is not repeating itself in all its lurid details. Currently, there is legislation wending its way through Congress that aims to at least lay the groundwork for a time when the government will acknowledge how our service member's health has been put at risk by the practice of burning everything. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed SB 3340, part of which directs the VA to establish a registry of all those who served in areas that may have been affected by open-air burn pits. The House has a similar rider on its veteran’s education bill , HR 4057 which also requires the VA to inform veterans of the registry and keep those who sign up apprised of research and treatments for illnesses and diseases associated with exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes.
All of this is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go. Many of the substances troops are known to be exposed to have still unknown or little understood effects on the human body, though many are among the most toxic substances known to man. In addition to causing a host of respiratory and cardiac problems, these substances are known carcinogens. Worse, many are known to effect humans on a chromosomal level, which accounts for the staggering jump in exceedingly rare birth defects and abnormalities of the children born to those who were exposed.
These are some of the known – and disturbing facts:
– the DoD knows and has known of the exposures, proven by a 2008 unclassified assessment of air quality at bases in Iraq and Djibouti.
– the projected cost of the Burn Pit Registry project will be $2 million dollars over the next five years, a paltry sum
– the defense contractor KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary has received billions of dollars to build and maintain military bases in Afghanistan, Iraq and all over the world.
– if the VA or the DoD admits to a causative effect in the operation of burn pits for the illnesses faced by military personnel, the question of when it was reasonable to assume this correlation existed then becomes the most important issue.
This last one is not a presumptive or baseless fear on the part of the DoD as dozens of suits have already been filed against KBR for their complicit role in the deaths and illnesses of service members. Those filing suit hold no illusions about the battle they face as KBR is one of the world’s largest construction companies, and one of this country’s most politically connected.
The most moving but unsurprising piece of news to come out of this tragedy is the support these veterans are receiving from previous generations of vets, particularly those from the Viet Nam Era. Viet Nam veterans know all too well the challenges and difficulties these new vets will face in the years and decades to come. In the same spirit in which Viet Nam vets have spearheaded the movement to honor all those currently serving, to guarantee they are welcomed home with the respect and dignity they deserve, they are helping organize and publicize the fight of this generation for recognition of their service related illnesses. They have more than forty years of experience on the front lines of the battle with the government they swore to serve, a government that used all its resources to deny them the care they deserved.
Let’s not have another Viet Nam era tragedy. Let’s recognize the sacrifices these men and women made to serve their country by acknowledging and caring for them when they come home with illnesses that are a direct result of their choice to serve.