Torching the Truth

The Pentagon is trying to cover up the toxic effects of its deadly burn pits.
Torching the Truth
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, on March 10, 2008. Military uniform items turned in must be burned to ensure they cannot be used by opposing forces. (U.S. Department of Defense, Public Domain)

America’s military adventures—and, just as often, its misadventures—have inspired thousands upon thousands of books. But the military isn’t just in the business of inspiring books: Sometimes it bans them, too.

The Pentagon recently announced that it was refusing to carry a new book by journalist (and veteran) Joseph Hickman in the stores on U.S. military bases. It’s called “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.”

Burn pits, NPR reports, are “acres-wide mounds of waste near bases” containing “everything from batteries to vehicle scraps to amputated body parts.” These refuse piles, once set aflame with jet fuel, can burn for 24 hours a day. They expose our troops and other personnel to deadly toxic fumes.

Banning books is bad enough. But there’s a bigger issue here: Why does the Pentagon expose our soldiers to deadly poisons and then pretend it hasn’t happened?

Hickman’s Burn Pits exposes a link between military service near burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and serious maladies, including everything from respiratory illnesses to rare brain cancers. Indeed, Hickman says, Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau died of one of these rare brain cancers after serving in Iraq.

The Pentagon’s ban comes despite the fact that the book is an Amazon bestseller and has been reviewed favorably in media around the world. So it seems like a sure bet that the brass doesn’t intend to change its policy of exposing our soldiers to these deadly toxins. By officially sticking their heads in the sand, they’re hoping the problem will go away.

By officially sticking their heads in the sand, they're hoping the problem will go away. The problem won't go away, though.

The problem won’t go away, though. Agent Orange didn’t go away after Vietnam. Gulf War Syndrome didn’t go away after Desert Storm. And now brave men and women who wanted nothing more than to serve their country are dying prematurely.

The effects on families are devastating. Just ask Joe Biden.

Or ask Tammy McCracken. Her husband David was one of my best friends. We were nearly inseparable since the age of 15.

David’s father was a highly decorated hero from World War II. David wanted nothing more than to follow in his dad’s footsteps. All through high school he talked only about joining the army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant after college and eventually rose to the rank of full colonel.

David had a degree in environmental engineering, so the army assigned him to manage garbage collection in Iraq early in the war. Our friends and I used to jokingly call him the “Garbage King of Iraq.”

None of us knew that the Pentagon’s policy of burning garbage—all of it, no matter what it is—was going to kill our friend.

But it did. In 2011, David developed a very rare form of brain cancer. He was diagnosed only days after running a marathon. Eight months later, he was dead.

He was just 47.

The burn pits were operated largely by KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton—the military contractor once helmed by Dick Cheney. It was KBR that decided to burn the garbage, with Pentagon approval. Instead of burying the garbage, KBR just bulldozed it into pits and set it on fire.

An attorney has filed a class action suit against KBR on behalf of veterans who believe they were sickened by the burn pits. Hundreds have come forward. And nearly 60,000 people may have been affected.

The Defense Department has to stand up for our soldiers and do the right thing. First, it needs to put out those burn pits. Second, it must acknowledge that the pits are causing these illnesses, as already confirmed by medical experts. Finally, it must take responsibility for healing the veterans affected.

Now’s not the time to bury the truth. It’s time to help our soldiers.

John Kiriakou is a columnist for OtherWords and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s a former CIA counterterrorism officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This article was previously published on OtherWords.