War on Iraq

New Public Database Reveals First-Hand Accounts of How Toxic Burn Pits Are Making U.S. Troops Sick

"Two months in, everyone was coughing up black stuff. Three months, in my black stuff started to include blood."

Cancer, pulmonary disease, multiple sclerosis, sleep apnea, heart disease: Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans have suffered all these and more from toxic fumes spewing from burn pits on American bases. The Disabled American Veterans now has information on 182 sick veterans in a database developed by Assistant National Legislative director, Kerry Baker. Forty-eight have developed lymphoma, leukemia or other cancers; and 16 veterans in the database have died. And on March 30th, a group of seven lawmakers asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to attend to these findings as well the findings from an independent scientific consultant, which found a serious danger that veterans may become ill  from burn pit fumes.

As early as 2006, the DoD had been informed by Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander Darrin Curtis that the pit was an acute health hazard. Though the Department of Defense has admitted that samples at the large burn pit at Balad contain Acetaldehyde, Acrolien, Arsenic, Benzene, Carbon Monoxide, Ethylbenzene,  Formaldehyde, Hydrogen Cyanide, Hydrogen Fluoride, Phosgene, Sulfur Dioxide, Sulfuric Acid, Toluene, Trichloroethane, Xylene, and other chemicals, to date, it  has insisted the pit presents no known dangers. The letter to Gates -- signed by Senators Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; Evan Bayh, D-Ind; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Representatives Tim Bishop, D-N.Y.; Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; John Hall, D-N.Y.; Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.; and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H. -- urged vigilance, citing the protracted and painful lessons from Agent Orange.

Rep. Bishop's office has developed a website in which veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan can tell their stories. In just a few days, many stories of negligence and suffering have emerged, adding to a tragic saga.


Dave was stationed at Balad, less than half a mile downwind from a double burn pit.

"They burned plastic, chemicals, tires, metal and who knows what else in that pit. Two months in everyone was coughing up black stuff. Three months in my black stuff started to include blood. I went to the clinic and the front desk turned me away. They said that I didn't need to see a doctor because it was just the burn pit crud. They said, 'A doctor cannot help you if you are not ill from a disease.' Later in the deployment, the smoke was so bad that we all were puking from it. Found out later that it was probably arsenic in the smoke. An air force memo outlined Dioxin, the chemical that made everyone sick from agent orange, comes from burning the same materials that were in the burn pit. The DoD tries to say that the dioxin was of no threat to human life. … I might not be the smartest guy in the world but dioxin is dioxin and it's harmful to humans no matter what the source. Be it agent orange or standing in the plume of the burn pit … But whatever, I came back home and was still coughing and having breathing problems. The doc gave me Sudafed."

Dave's Physical Training run time went from 10:12 to 13:59 in 6 months. His squad leader told him it was his fault. He should run even more, to run faster.

"So I took his advice … and then boom. Emergency room. Couldn't breathe. Had to be put on a machine … And the salt in the wound: The DoD says that burning tires, plastics, chemicals, medical waste, metal, oil, etc. isn't harmful. Which makes you wonder why it's illegal to burn that stuff back at home. "


Terry, deployed with the 101st Division, was stationed in Balad.

"Two weeks after arriving in country on my most recent deployment to Balad, I started developing symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as Still's Disease (Adult Onset Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis). The experts say that the disease is triggered by something to which you're exposed."

Terry is an Army Reserve Major and civilian airline pilot, and the illness has put both his military and civilian careers in jeopardy.


Kathy was a staff sergeant with the National Guard in Balad.

She became sick while there, and once home was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease -- hearing loss and tinnitus.

"My health began to slowly decline. Widespread muscle aches and pains w/stiffness gradually settled in, as did neuralgia and sleep apnea."

She now sleeps with a breathing machine. Kathy has done extensive research and has found dozens of studies that have linked high concentration of particulate matter to cardiovascular problems, as well as to premature death.


Michael was stationed in Balad Iraq from Oct 2005 until June 2006.

"During this time I would always complain about the smoke. We were told it was safe. Well I started choking in my sleep waking up not breathing. At the time I was also being treated for PTSD so that's what I was told it was from. I got medavaced from Balad in June. I seen another doctor; he told me that it did not sound like PTSD. I did a sleep study and I found out that I had sleep apnea really bad. since then I have had three surgeries on my face and now I have chronic pain in my face because the first surgery did not go well. I have breathing problems during the day, a problem with the lower part of my lungs so now I'm on inhalers. I never had any of these problems until I got to Balad. It has pretty much ruined my army career. It's time someone is held responsible for negligence to me and my fellow soldiers going through the same thing."


Robert was deployed to Balad, Iraq from February to June 2006.

"Virtually every night my tent was hazy and full of smoke and at times you could even see bits of ash floating in the air. The smell was so acrid that even holding your head on the sheet/blankets would not help you get that "clean" breathe of fresh air. I never got a good nights sleep there."

Things he saw in the burn pit included 55-gallon drums of unknown fluids, tent parts, cabinets … anything from paper to the kitchen sink. He now has problems doing "normal tasks like moving boxes, putting on my boots, playing with my children … It feels like someone is grabbing me in the center of my chest and squeezing to prevent me getting a good breath … I find myself gasping for air and hyperventilating to catch my breath. For Robert, a 42-year-old father of six, "The most troubling of this isn't my health as it is is the health and welfare of the thousands of other service men and women who have come and gone through Balad. My oldest two children also joined the Air Force … and ironically enough my oldest daughter is heading to Balad this summer on her third deployment to the same base. My son is also heading to Balad this summer on his first deployment. What is in their future … one can only hope …"


Derrol was stationed at Bagram, Afghanistan and later Balad, Iraq as an Air Force reservist on active orders for over six years.

From the steady burning pits, he suffered both coughing and diarrhea. "An x-ray for a back problem showed that one half of my right lung was missing … they found 2 large nodules/masses in my lower right lung. A CT scan "showed a total of 7 nodules/masses in my right lung and scarring in my left. A Line of Duty was initiated and pushed through rather quickly to confirm the injury as active duty, deploy related. I contacted the VA and started a claim in November of 2007. I again deployed to Qatar for 4.5 months last summer and the claim was held until I was released from active duty in Sept 2008. It is now March 24, 2009 and I still have not heard from VA as to my medical board rating for compensation and disability. I also have problems with my stomach now and shortness of breath, I am still waiting on VA."

JohnandWallaceboth worked for KBR at Balad. They both now have colon cancer.


More first-hand reports from veterans can be found on the online Military Times.

Veterans who are suffering health problems they believe are connected to burn pit fumes should report their condition to Kerry Baker at 202-314-5229, to add to the database.

Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York's Faculty Fellowship Publication Program. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as the Partisan Review, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Tikkun, and the Guardian UK. Her third novel, When You Come Home, which explores the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness, was recently published by Curbstone Press.