In 2004, Staff Sergeant Susan Clifford was stationed at Balad Air Base in Iraq, where twice a month she was tasked with dumping her unit’s waste products—including human body parts and dead animals—into a dirt pit and setting them ablaze. After a year of breathing the pit’s thick black smoke, her health began to decline. Her lungs filled with fluid, and she soon found she couldn’t engage in strenuous physical activity. She was later discharged from the Army with full disability. Clifford’s story, as New York Times journalist James Risen reported in 2010, was typical of a class of new disability cases that appeared to be linked directly to the burn pits set up across Iraq and Afghanistan by a subsidiary of Halliburton. Risen’s article led the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to publish a report on the long-term health consequences of exposure to burn pits, which clearly confirmed the linkage between the pits and debilitating illnesses affecting service personnel returning from the Middle East. But, in the years since, the media has largely ignored the issue. Last week, I caught up with journalist Joseph Hickman, whose new book, The Burn Pits, tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
What brought you to this story, and why do you believe it’s not been adequately addressed?
In March 2010, I was the lead source in your article for Harper’s Magazine that exposed details about the death of three prisoners at Guantánamo in June 2006 (“The Guantánamo ‘Suicides,’” Report). In the months that followed, I got phone calls and emails from soldiers who were stationed at Guantánamo, as well as other detainee-holding facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most gave me their support for coming forward, but some also shared their experiences in the field. One evening, I spoke with a soldier stationed at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. He described how he and several of his friends had been exposed over time to the burn pit there and how he and several others had fallen ill. This was the first time I heard of some of the symptoms that followed exposure to the burn pits. I made a commitment to follow up on it.
For whatever reason, the Defense Department (DoD) continues to deny that the burn pits were a health hazard. Many medical experts also believe the findings on the IOM report finalized in 2011 were not valid because the IOM only studied one of the more than 270 burn pits operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, DoD refused to share the data they collected—such as plume or soil samples taken from the burn pits during their study—with the IOM, which is why the IOM report was basically inconclusive in its findings. The DoD has never offered any explanation for its refusal to share information, but of course it has always been cautious when it comes to sharing information about conditions at bases in a combat zone. But in this case, keeping secrets doesn’t help keep soldiers safe; it puts the health and well-being of soldiers at risk.
What new evidence has appeared since the 2010 disclosures and the 2011 IOM report?
Notwithstanding the DoD’s refusal to share or even meaningfully participate in a public sorting of the issue, since 2010 many environmental scientists and medical experts independent of DoD have concluded, with great evidence, the burn pits were hazardous to the service members on the ground. In my research, I also discovered that while all burn pits were a serious health hazard to service members, some burn pits were much worse than others. At least five burn pits in Iraq were built on top of former Iraqi chemical-weapons facilities, and they could have been contaminated with chemical agents. Many of the veterans who are sick are showing symptoms of illnesses that can best be explained from exposure to mustard gas.
You start your book with some discussion of Agent Orange. How do you think the current health problem arising from the burn pits compares with the Agent Orange ordeal?
There’s no doubt that the Agent Orange experience is dictating how the U.S. government manages this challenge, and I don’t mean that in a positive way. The United States denied the linkages between Agent Orange and the disabilities veterans faced to the bitter end. Washington seems set on repeating that approach. It starts with the Veterans Administration denying benefits to veterans who are sick. Congress also passed a law to create a burn pit registry. That also followed the approach with Agent Orange, where there was also a registry. That was a complete failure. It took almost thirty years before the Vietnam veterans received benefits on account of their exposure to Agent Orange. Within that time, a large number of veterans died without receiving anything. My hope is that we don’t repeat that part, but so far it does not look promising.
As you note, Congress was engaged with Agent Orange for decades, with some positive outcome for the victims, particularly for veterans. Did you try to bring these issues to the attention of your own congressional delegation? How did that go?
1The Seaton Hall study was assembled by Hickman.
Yes, I took my concerns about the burn pits to Senator Ron Johnson, from my home state of Wisconsin. He seemed very interested at first, but it ended up being a complete disappointment. During our discussions, I presented him with a list of forty-five service members from his state who are sick and who believe that their illness can be linked to the burn pits. I also gave him a Seton Hall statistical study supporting their claims.1 Not only did he not do anything about it, he actually voted in favor of a bill to cut funding for burn-pit research. Senator Johnson was very concerned about the exposure that some contractors, principally Halliburton, might face, and the cost to the United States of providing health care. But he didn’t seem so concerned about the wounded and disabled warriors, starting with those he was supposed to represent in the Senate. Come November, I plan on voting to fire Ron Johnson.
The Veterans Administration has been in the eye of a political storm for the last several years, buffeted by a series of scandals. How did the V.A. stack up when dealing with a newly established health crisis, the one associated with the burn pits?
The burn-pit issue and the impact it has on veterans clearly shows how broken the Veterans Administration really is. When veterans started applying for V.A. benefit for their exposure to the burn pits it would take, in most cases, almost two years for them to get an answer. Also, funding is a huge issue. Basic care at V.A. facilities has been an issue. To add new health threats from an ever-changing battlefield is more strain than the V.A. can handle.
What ultimately is the fix for the burn pits?
2KBR separated from Halliburton in 2007.
The burn pits were built and run by an operating subsidiary of Halliburton named KBR.2 Don’t they face some sort of accountability for their role? A number of soldiers who were exposed to the pits and got sick have filed legal claims against KBR, which have been consolidated into a class action in a federal court in Maryland. KBR tried to have the claims dismissed, arguing that it was just an extension of the DoD and couldn’t be held liable for decisions that the DoD made, particularly not in wartime. KBR won with this argument in the district court, but the appeals court reversed the decision and sent the case back for trial. The Supreme Court then refused to accept KBR’s request for a review of the case. So the legal case against KBR looks like it’s headed for trial.
The DoD also needs to take responsibility for their part in creating the burn pits. And the V.A. needs to start believing the service members who were on the ground and say the burn pits made them sick. I find it really disturbing that we send service members off to war, we have full confidence in their ability to get the job done, but when they come home and say they are sick, we question their integrity by not listening to them and denying them the care they deserve.