Behind this soldier is a burn pit, where soldiers typically burned human waste, plastic, medical waste, batteries, and more. (michiganradio.org)
By Ken Klippenstein
Reader Supported News (3/3/16)
Skyhorse Publishing’s new imprint Hot Books, created to publish investigative books on controversial issues, has indeed touched off controversy with a new book that the Department of Defense refuses to carry in its stores relied upon most heavily by service members.
The book, titled “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” reveals a link between military service in Iraq and Afghanistan and serious illnesses ranging from respiratory complications to brain cancers. The illnesses affect at least 59,000 soldiers including, according to the book, Joe Biden’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer after serving in Iraq.
Though one would think a book on this topic would be helpful to service members, Chris Ward, public affairs official for the Defense Department’s Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), confirmed to me via telephone that they had decided not to carry “The Burn Pits.” Ward would not provide a clear reason for not carrying the book, despite its prominence – it is an Amazon bestseller with favorable reviews in major news media like The Guardian.
When I told the publisher, David Talbot, about the DOD’s response, he called it an “outrageous and blatant example of government censorship.” He argued that the DOD has a responsibility to “do everything within their power to inform returning veterans about these potential health hazards instead of covering it up.”
Talbot thinks the DOD’s refusal to carry the book represents “the military’s ongoing efforts to cover up a problem that is developing into the Agent Orange scandal of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The AAFES (known colloquially by service members as the PX) is the primary location where soldiers shop for all of their goods. AAFES is a government-owned company and is the oldest and largest of the DOD’s exchange services, offering service members tax-free goods conveniently located on all Army and Air Force bases in the United States and around the world. AAFES’s refusal to carry the book keeps it out of the hands of military personnel who most need to read it. This may even violate the law.
As Joseph Hickman, the book’s author, told me, in 2013 the Senate passed legislation and the president signed into law The Burn Pit Open Registry Act, mandating that any new information or studies about burn pits must be shared with military personnel and veterans. Hickman is preparing a lawsuit against the DOD over their refusal to carry his book, alleging that this violates the law. For Hickman, the matter is personal: he himself is a former US marine and Army sergeant. In fact, Hickman dedicated his book to “all the military service members and veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Hickman is donating a portion of the proceeds from his book to a burn pits advocacy group, Burn Pits 360.
I asked the publisher about his thoughts on Hickman’s forthcoming lawsuit against the DOD for not carrying his book. Talbot said, “I think the lawsuit has solid basis. It’s obviously not just censorship, it’s infringement of trade. They are trying to snuff out the book’s sales potential. This is obviously the key audience for this book: the people who have the most interest in this book are the members of America’s military services and their families.”
In Iraq and Afghanistan, massive open-air burn pits were used to dispose of waste, often including toxic materials like asbestos insulation, lithium batteries, pesticides, electronics, and medical waste. Jet fuel was frequently used to stoke the fires. The burn pits were located on military bases in close proximity to where soldiers were housed and worked.
The burn pits were largely operated by KBR, Inc., formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton, a private military contractor for which former vice president Dick Cheney served as CEO. In the past, the DOD had managed waste disposal, but in the case of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they decided to farm the work out to KBR. KBR’s use of open-air burn pits went against the EPA and DOD waste management guidance, the latter of which says that open-air burning of solid waste should be forgone in favor of incinerators.
Perhaps the greatest lapse in the DOD and KBR’s judgment was the fact that they constructed some burn pits on documented chemical weapons sites, where such weapons remained from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime and could have been released when the burn pits were set on fire. In fact, Hickman’s book reveals a statistical correlation between troops who served near these chemical sites and troops presenting with the most severe symptoms associated with the burn pits. One of those service members was Beau Biden.
I asked Hickman why he thinks KBR and the DOD were so careless. He didn’t mince words: “For KBR, it was corporate profits. For the DOD, it was penny pinching. Neither of them ever took into consideration environmental ramifications, or U.S. military members’ health and wellbeing.” Hickman believes that everything from the close proximity of the burn pits to military bases to the use of open-air pits instead of incinerators can be explained by KBR’s quest for quarterly profits and DOD stinginess.
Asked what the Bush and Obama administrations have done to help burn pit victims, Hickman’s answer was no less candid: “Nothing.”
Susan Burke, an attorney, has filed a class action lawsuit against KBR on behalf of hundreds of ill veterans. Burke told me that she expects the class action to ultimately cover 3,000 veterans.
Asked about why she took up the lawsuit, Burke said she’s “seeking justice for all of those folks … who are injured. We have people who have suffered serious pulmonary injuries as well as cancer.”
KBR has insisted that everything it did was in keeping with laws and guidance governing waste disposal.
When I asked Burke if she thinks KBR’s policies were legal, she replied, “That’s not accurate. We have evidence that KBR failed to comply with the [DOD’s] contract.”
Asked how strong she thinks the link is between the respiratory illnesses, cancers, and the burn pits, Burke put it bluntly: “Very strong.” Burke reiterated that this link has been borne out by medical professionals and other experts.