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Reporter Explores Link Between Warzone Burn Pits And Veteran Illnesses

Reporter Explores Link Between Warzone Burn Pits And Veteran Illnesses
A number of U.S. service members have fallen ill after returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some believe their ailments are caused by exposure to toxic open-air burn pits located at military bases throughout the warzone. Journalist Matthew LaPlante discusses his three part series, "Sickened by Service," which ran this month in The Salt Lake Tribune.

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.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with reporter Matthew LaPlante, and we’re talking about his three-part series, “Sickened by Service,” which ran this month in the Salt Lake Tribune. And we’re talk – it’s most especially about the illnesses that some former members of the military are reporting now that may be linked to huge open pit fires at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, Matthew, I want to tell everybody that we are welcoming their phone calls if they have heard about this or they think that they have suffered some ill effect from those burn pits in Iraq. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Matthew, tell us about how you first heard about this story of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and becoming ill.

LAPLANTE: Well, in 2006, a environmental health officer from Hill Air Force Base, which is here near Salt Lake City, named Darrin Curtis, an Air Force officer wrote a memo. He went to – He was stationed in Balad. He saw the pits as I did, but he had a different perspective on them than I did being an environmental health officer. And he very quickly shot a memo up to his supervisors warning of acute and chronic health problems to come for anyone who was exposed to this in an effort, in fact, to accelerate the timeline for getting an incinerator or several incinerators to Balad. But for several years the memo was largely ignored by military officials. It wasn’t, however, ignored by members of the military who were coming home with a variety of illnesses and trying to find an explanation for why they were suffering the way they did. The memo got copied and it got recopied and it got distributed all over the place. It was pinned up on bulletin boards at military bases all over the place, and stuffed into service members’ medical files. And it was in 2008 that I learned of this memo and, given that it was written by a Hill Air Force Base officer, I decided it would make good story fodder so I wrote a story about it and immediately started getting phone calls and e-mails from people who were telling me about the problems that they suffered. And…

CAVANAUGH: And let me ask you, Matthew, what kind of problems have been reported that may be associated to these open pit fires?

LAPLANTE: Well, you name it, cancer, leukemia, lots and lots of respiratory disease, skin problems. One of the problems is that people don’t know what they don’t know at this time. So they can’t say that what they’re suffering wasn’t connected to the burn pits, they also can’t say, scientifically speaking, that it was. They only know that it’s a likely culprit in their various health concerns.

CAVANAUGH: You tell very movingly the story of a veteran called Andrew Rounds. Tell us a little bit about the health issues that he had and what resulted.

LAPLANTE: Yeah, Andrew Rounds was 17 years old when he joined the military. He was – he grew up in this little town called Waterloo, Oregon, which is right by Lebanon, Oregon, where I used to work at a very small little paper before I came here to Salt Lake City. He went to serve – He joined at a time of war. He joined knowing that he was going to go to war. He went to war in Iraq, indeed, served his country and then came home and was shortly thereafter discharged. And about a little more than a year later, he started having headaches and then his sight started to go blurry and then he started coughing up blood kind of sporadically, none of which caused him or anyone else great, great concern until he one day collapsed on the floor of his parents’ home, passed out. They found him. He was life-flighted up to Portland to Oregon Health Sciences University where he was diagnosed with leukemia. They expected him to last only a few more weeks after that. He fought on for nine months and finally passed away. But in the midst of all of this, because he – because of the specifics of the amount of time that he had been out of the service when he was diagnosed with leukemia, the VA, under the rules and guidelines in federal law, would not treat him or pay for his medical care so he ended up having his care paid for for the last nine months of his life by the Oregon Health Plan, which is a health safety net designed for the state’s working poor.

CAVANAUGH: Now why does his family suspect that his illness might have something to do with these burn pits?

LAPLANTE: You know, at first they did not. They – His mother, at first, kind of, you know, she’s a soft-spoken, humble woman and she at first just thought this was her family’s lot, that these things happen. You know, kids really, you know, 20 year old, 25 year old young people sometimes, rarely albeit the case, come down with leukemia. And she thought that her son was a victim of chance at first. Over time, she started to suspect that, well, maybe it wasn’t chance, maybe it was something he was exposed to in Iraq. Certainly that’s been the case in wars past. And then she started hearing about the burn pits, and then she started hearing about other people who had been diagnosed with the exact same kind of leukemia that her son died of. And she no longer believes he was a victim of chance, in fact she now thinks he was a casualty of war.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about “Sickened by Service,” a three-part series written by my guest, reporter Matthew LaPlante. And, most specifically, we’re talking about the fact that some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have developed disturbing, sometimes deadly diseases that some blame on their exposure to huge, open fire pits that burned waste outside of Balad airport and other areas of – in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number – we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let me ask you, Matthew, just about how many service members have been exposed to the smoke from these burn pits.

LAPLANTE: Oh, easily hundreds of thousands have been exposed. There’s been over two million service members who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan. At every major base in both theaters, there are burn pit operations ongoing or have been ongoing in the last six and seven, eight years now. So easily hundreds of thousands of people have been exposed. How many have gotten sick is a harder number to grab ahold of but it’s easily in the thousands.

CAVANAUGH: As I say, we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call now from Jack in South Bay. Good morning, Jack, and welcome to These Days.

JACK (Caller, South Bay): Hi. Thank you for this presentation. You know, when I first started listening, I was thinking that this sounded like a smokescreen for – to protect the ill effects of spent uranium shells. That’s been a big problem with the Gulf War syndrome and from the Kuwait war and also we’re still using those kinds of munitions that throw off radioactive isotopes. They become airborne, people will get cancers, people will get all kinds of ill effects. So I would love for you in your communication – it sounds like you really very versed at this, to weave some of that conversation into this smoke conversation to paint the bigger picture of all the ill effects of war and the ways we wage war now.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that comment, Jack, and I’m wondering since you’ve done so much research on this, Matthew, well, what did you hear about the spent uranium shells and the diseases that some people say result from that?

LAPLANTE: Yeah, Jack brings up a great point in that there is a variety of exposure. Certainly, the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan are getting much attention, are finally getting more attention today as a source of potential sickness for many service members. But service members are not just exposed to one potential thing that makes them sick. There are scores of other things that potentially could have made them sick and, certainly, when you have a military career that lasts sometimes decades, the accumulation of different exposures, of exposures to different pesticides and herbicides and different medication and breathing in different kind of airs and being exposed to different kinds of, you know, local diseases and conditions and symptoms and bad water, when you put all these things together, you have a kind of epidemiological picture that is almost impossible to sort through. Now, one piece of that puzzle has to be depleted uranium. This is uranium that is very – it’s a metal that’s very dense and because it’s very dense, it’s great in making armor and also the shell casings for bullets in some cases but it’s also mildly radioactive. And there is tons of this stuff that is littered across the battlefields everywhere that we’ve fought and there is some speculation and some scientific research ongoing as to the effects of this radioactive metal when it’s left out on the battlefield and when you’re exposed to it as a soldier fighting wars. So that is definitely one piece of the picture. It’s one piece of the puzzle that is being looked at, that people are studying, but as of right now the studies are inconclusive. And this is part of the great problem with these diseases, is that, you know, for the purpose of compensating people and caring for them longterm, what the federal government does is it says you need to prove to us, you need to give us proof, that your sickness was connected to your service.

CAVANAUGH: Matthew, that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about. We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue to talk about the illnesses that may be connected to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also how the military responds to these claims of collateral medical damage that veterans have when they return from war. We’re taking you calls at 1-888-895-5727. And we will return in just a few minutes here on These Days.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is reporter Matthew LaPlante and we’re talking about his series, “Sickened by Service,” which ran this month in the Salt Lake Tribune. And it has to do with some deadly diseases that returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan say they’ve developed due to their exposure to huge, open pit fires burning outside of American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re also talking about the military’s response to that allegation. And we are taking your calls. If you know what these fire pits are, if you’ve been exposed to them, give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. And, Matthew, what has been the military’s response to this connection that some people are making between the burn pits and reported illnesses?

LAPLANTE: Well, initially it probably wouldn’t surprise anybody who is aware of how the military responded to Agent Orange at first or Gulf War illness at first, the military initially denied there was a connection at all. They said there was no evidence that linked longterm illnesses to exposure to this toxic smoke and these fumes, and that’s where it was left for several years. Just in the last few weeks, the senior health official for preventative medicine in the Department of Defense, a gentleman by the name of Craig Postlewaite, changed the way he speaks of the situation. He now says that it’s likely that at least some service members, and he didn’t – he hasn’t given any indication of how many some is, but he says it’s likely that at least some service members have developed longterm illnesses as a result of exposure to the pits. So that’s a start for a change in the way that the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration approaches this issue but there’s certainly a long way to go.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it’s very interesting in your series of articles because you make the point a number of different times, just in case anybody thinks that when a veteran gets sick that they can automatically go to the VA hospital and get free treatment, you say very clearly in your article that is not the case.

LAPLANTE: Yeah, I think there is this maybe misconception that the Veterans Administration offers free healthcare for life for anyone who ever served in uniform. That is not the case. Right now there is a tiered system in which veterans are granted access to VA medical care. If you can directly connect your ailment or your illness or your wound to your service for your country, then you are, indeed, provided medical care through the VA provided that you don’t make too much money. If you make over a certain amount of money, they ask you to get your care through a private insurance provider or they will give you care at the VA but you have to pay for it.



CAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead, Matthew, I’m sorry.

LAPLANTE: Oh, well, but the truth is that there are many, many millions of people who are left out of the system and a group of these people, and nobody knows really how large of it – the group is, are people who there’s something wrong with them. They have a disease or an illness or an injury that they suspect was connected to their wartime service or to the service in the military but they can’t prove it. They can’t bring the VA a preponderance of evidence. And so they are not entitled to medical care and they’re not entitled to financial compensation for their illness.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, what is – what did you – what were you able to find out about the procedure when a patient goes in and presents an illness to the VA and says I – you know, I picked this up, I know I got it from being exposed to burn pits, let’s say, in Iraq. I really – that’s when I started to have my problem. How does the VA begin the process of trying to link that illness or that constellation of illnesses to actual exposure in a war zone?

LAPLANTE: Right, well, you know, in the best possible circumstance, which is, in fact, one of the worst possible circumstances, you have an illness that is very obviously connected to your service or a wound that is connected to your service. You have been in a roadside bomb attack, you’ve lost a limb. They have a record of when you were injured, where you were injured, and they can look at you and say, yes, you’ve lost a limb or you are suffering from, you know, an eyesight disability that is very much connected to a roadside bomb explosion or something like that. So they can look at you and say right away, they can rate you, they can tell you how disabled you are per the rules, and they can file you right into the service. There is also a window of opportunity of veterans who are within a year of their service to come back and say I’m sick with this or this and, in many cases, because it’s within a year of their service, they have been – they are presumptively connected – their ailments are presumptively connected to their service and so they are treated as well. But for longterm illnesses, it gets a little tougher. When you get sick more than a year – more than outside of that year window and when the science doesn’t connect your ailment to your service, it becomes an almost impossible task to get the VA to take care of you and that’s what many people are finding right now. But the sad fact is that in some cases it can take decades for the science to catch up. Just in the last few months, the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs have acknowledged three more diseases that they now consider presumptively connected to exposure to Agent Orange. This is 40 years after the war in Vietnam. So for 40 years, there have been many people suffering from these diseases but unable to get medical care and compensation through the VA for those diseases and their symptoms. And many have died while waiting for the science to catch up.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a phone call now. Skyler is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Skyler, and welcome to These Days.

SKYLER (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. This is quite shocking to me but it shouldn’t be at all because we know, first of all, how the western medicine thinks about the human body and illnesses anyway. You know, they never go for the longterm injury of some environmental thing. But my main comment is so we also know that these – the air around these bases where these pits are that are used, acreages, doesn’t stay in one place so we are actually poisoning the entire country and all the population.

CAVANAUGH: Right, Skyler, I want to take you up on that because I want to ask Matthew, do we know what kind of impact, if any, this – the air from these burn pits have had on the Iraqi people?

LAPLANTE: We don’t. There has been so little study and the conditions on the ground in Iraq are still such that it makes it very difficult to do the kind of epidemiological studies that would be required to connect this. No, we can’t even connect these, you know, scientifically for our own veterans and our own soldiers who we have much greater access to. So – But what Skyler – Skyler’s point is a great one though in that service members, veterans who serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’re there for a relatively short amount of time. Most tours of duty are from six months to one year. Some people go back for a second tour of duty, some people for a third and a fourth but there are a relatively small number of people who’ve been on the ground there for more than a few years when you’re talking about service members. But when you talk about Balad Airbase, you’re talking about an enormous, city-sized military operation that is right next to the very large city of Balad where people can’t – don’t just stay for a year, they live there and they will be there for the rest of their lives and they’ve been exposed to the smoke and the fumes from these burn pits presumably for the last 7 and 8 years. So absolutely, positively the effects are not just related to service members but from kind of the American perspective right now, that’s kind of where the window of attention is. And, in fact, I had a conversation with Representative Tim Bishop, who has been kind of at the forefront of this issue in trying to get service members care and trying to get the studies underway to make sure that we investigate this and we don’t ignore it as we did with Agent Orange and Gulf War illness. And I asked Representative Bishop that very question, well, what about the civilians? And he paused for a moment and he said, I don’t know. And it was very clear that he hadn’t thought about it. And it wasn’t he hadn’t thought about it because he’s a bad guy and he didn’t, you know, want to think about the collateral damage, as we call it, of the civilians in Iraq. He hadn’t thought about it because the most pressing concern for him were his constituents and American veterans, and it was clear that when I asked him this question, it was hurtful to him that he hadn’t thought about this yet and he pledged to. He pledged to give it a lot of thought and to propose legislation as such that could possibly help the situation.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Kevin is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Kevin, and welcome to These Days.

KEVIN (Caller, San Diego): Hi, good morning. I just had a quick question about Tallil Airbase, also called Ali Base, depending on who you talk to. I was there in 2006 and they had a huge burn pit there, you know, a lot of smoke that would blow directly into our living areas. My question was, I’ve seen a lot of documentation online and in the media about Balad Airbase’s burn pit but I was just wondering if there’s much documentation about Tallil’s because I haven’t seen much of that out there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call. Let me ask you really quick though, Kevin, have you or anybody you know who was at that base felt ill effects from that burn pit?

KEVIN: I haven’t had any illnesses that I suspect being tied to the burn pit but I can’t really speak for my other colleagues. I’m not sure if any of them have had problems that they think are linked to that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you very much for the call. And, Matthew, I’m sorry, go ahead and take his question, if you would.

LAPLANTE: Yeah, no problem. The other thing Kevin, unfortunately at this time can’t speak to is his future health, is what he’s going to be facing, you know, five years from now and ten years from now. There have been – these burn pits are spread out all across the war theaters. The largest one is in Balad. It’s the one where there was documentation that there were health concerns, you know, going years back and so that’s gotten the most attention. But to think that this is only a problem for service members who served in Balad is simply not the case. I’ve spoken to many who’s spoken – who’s served at various bases throughout the theaters including in Tallil who have concerns about their health at this time. But so, yes, certainly just because a service member didn’t serve at Balad does not exclude them from the possibility that whatever burn pit they were exposed to may have been toxic to their health because these are, in any case, maybe not as large as the one at Balad but they are ongoing, you know, kind of 24/7 operations where they’re burning what amounts to toxic waste.

CAVANAUGH: Matthew, tell us a little bit more about what’s going on now to try to find out if there is a link between the open pit fires and illnesses. You mentioned something going on with Representative Tim Bishop and I also understand that there’s a Pentagon study that’s just gotten underway?

LAPLANTE: That’s right. After quite a bit of delay and resistance, the Pentagon has acknowledged that it needs to further study the issue so it is engaging in a rather large study over the next year to try and determine what kind of health effects people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who believe that they may have been exposed to these toxic burn pits are suffering now. One of the other things that’s going on through Representative Bishop and other members of congress who are supporting his actions, are a kind of a longer term and a much bigger project even where they’re going to go back and look at the individual service records of hundreds of thousands of service members to try to get a better accounting of where everybody was at at the time that they served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now, as it stands, if you served in Iraq or Afghanistan between 2001 and the current year, there’s a good chance that the military, on just a very simple review of your record, could say, yes, they served in Iraq or Afghanistan but they couldn’t tell you without a lot of digging where exactly you served, and this makes it very difficult to do epidemiological studies. And so what Representative Bishop is proposing is that we go back and look, kind of service record by service record, at people files to determine where they were to kind of draw a map of the region so that you can get a better idea of, you know, if there are clusters of people who are getting sick.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, Matthew, we have just about a minute or so and it’s not fair of me to really ask you this question but I know a lot of your series, “Sickened by Service,” has to do with the way the VA has handled diseases reported in the past, the history of how the VA has dealt with these reported illnesses by vets. Is there anything different that’s happening now in the way the VA is handling these supposed illnesses coming from burn pits?

LAPLANTE: Well, I think just very briefly, you know, largely we have learned a lot of lessons of the past. Certainly, the bureaucracy has not changed, the laws have not changed as fast as some people would have liked but I gotta tell you, within the individual VA medical centers, I see a lot of acknowledgement, a lot of people who say, yes, this is a problem, we only need the laws to change, we only need the funding to increase to address these problems. So there’s a willingness to look at this issue and to pursue it and to care for veterans if they can get the resources to do so.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know we tried to get a comment on this issue from the VA here in San Diego and in Los Angeles but no one was available to be on the show or to give us a written comment. Matthew LaPlante, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

LAPLANTE: Oh, thank you so much for letting me air the story.

CAVANAUGH: Matthew LaPlante, a reporter who wrote the three-part series “Sickened by Service” that ran this month in the Salt Lake Tribune. If you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard here on These Days, Coming up, we’ll hear about a group that helps San Diego kids get out into nature. That’s coming up next right here on KPBS.