Why is our military making its soldiers sick?
To an unsuspecting eye, the Torres family home is indistinguishable from the other bungalows that line a flat, treeless stretch of road somewhere off US Route 77. Under an unforgiving Texas sun, the family’s golden retriever runs in circles around the parched lawn, pausing for breath in the shadow of an SUV parked out front. And inside, life appears perfectly normal. Framed photos of Rosie and Le Roy’s wedding and of their three teenaged children line the mantle. Tubs of peanut butter and jam sit open on a cluttered kitchen counter. The giggles of 16-year-old girls on summer vacation echo from down the hall.
But upon closer inspection, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a family under siege. Le Roy’s imposing physique still harkens back to his decades of law enforcement and military service, but his stature belies a profound physical frailty. One that becomes obvious the moment he speaks: Le Roy’s voice is meek, and his eyes water and hands shake slightly as his ailing lungs strain to expel a single sentence. When he talks about what happened to him, the shaking speeds up. And when he’s asked how his health problems have affected Rosie and the kids, who’ve spent the past five years wondering if today was the day he’d die, tears from those waterlogged eyes spill onto his cheeks.
Le Roy, now 41, joined the Army at the age of 17 — before even finishing high school. After six years of active duty he enlisted in the reserves. But it wasn’t until 2007 that he was finally deployed overseas and served a one-year tour as a battalion personnel officer stationed out of Iraq’s Joint Base Balad. Since then, Le Roy has become increasingly ill. First it was incessant coughing, shortness of breath, crushing chest pain. Then came the headaches; agony so intense that Rosie would often drive Le Roy to the ER, convinced this was the end. And finally the gastrointestinal trauma: Le Roy recalls once passing a blood clot the size of a golf ball in a rest area bathroom. “I wondered all the time whether I would live to the next day,” he says. “Because it just kept getting worse and worse.”
As Le Roy and Rosie struggled to understand his symptoms they also made a startling discovery: as the two are now acutely aware, Le Roy isn’t the only veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to suffer from mysterious illnesses. Thousands of others are complaining of breathing problems, gastrointestinal disorders, and even rare cancers. Some have already died of these ailments. A handful of health experts are now concerned that today’s veterans face an emerging epidemic, one threatening the lives of thousands of men and women — but neither the Department of Defense (DOD) nor the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) concur. It’s a conflict that’s pitting Le Roy and Rosie, along with a growing number of veterans, politicians, doctors, and scientists against some of the two biggest institutions in the US government.
And it’s all because of garbage.
At the height of the war in Iraq, US forces operated out of 505 bases scattered across the country. Joint Base Balad, a 15-square-mile outpost north of Baghdad, was the second largest. Home to 36,000 military personnel and contractors at its peak, the base was considered a vital hub for operations throughout Iraq — largely thanks to two 11,000-foot runways and one of the best and biggest trauma centers in the region. Balad also boasted a notorious array of amenities: troops living in the makeshift mini-city could dine on Burger King or Subway, play miniature golf or relax in an air-conditioned movie theater, and browse for TVs or iPods at two different shopping centers.
But when Le Roy arrived at Balad in the summer of 2007, the first thing he noticed was the smell. A noxious, overwhelming stench reminiscent of burning rubber. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is something really bad, really really bad,’” he recalls. Soon, he also noticed the smoke: plumes of it curling into the air at all hours of the day, sometimes lingering over the base as dark, foreboding clouds. That smoke, Le Roy soon learned, was coming from the same place as the stench that had first grabbed him: Balad’s open-air burn pit.
PLASTIC, STYROFOAM, ELECTRONICS, METAL
It’s no secret that open-air burning poses health hazards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long warned that burning waste — even organic refuse like brush or tree branches — is dangerous. Burning items like plastic water bottles or computer parts is even worse. “It’s appalling,” says Anthony Wexler, PhD, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis and the co-author of a 2010 review of the military’s air-quality surveillance programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “From a health perspective, this kind of open-pit burning, especially when you’re burning everything under the sun, creates a real mess.” That’s because of both the size of the particulate matter emitted from the pits and its composition. Smoke from any combustion process fills the air with what are known as “fine particles” or PM2.5. Because they’re so small — measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less — these particles burrow more deeply into the lungs than larger airborne pollutants, and from there can leach into the bloodstream and circulate through the body. The military’s burn pits emitted particulate matter laced with heavy metals and toxins — like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid — that are linked to serious health ailments. Among them are chronic respiratory and cardiovascular problems, allergies, neurological conditions, several kinds of cancer, and weakened immune systems.
Temperatures in the Middle East, which regularly exceed 100 degrees, are more than just unpleasant. For soldiers saddled with pounds of gear, stifling heat increases respiration rate and ups the tendency of deep breathing through the mouth — increasing the rate at which fine particles enter the lungs.
The draft included dozens of questions about non-combat exposures, including whether or not veterans ever smoked, worked in dusty offices, or had hobbies — like woodworking or pottery glazing — that might have exposed them to airborne hazards. In fact, such questions were more extensive than those about a veteran’s tours of duty. On a checklist asking about “current” illnesses, constrictive bronchiolitis was omitted. And then there was this single question on the survey’s eighth page: “During your pre-deployment, deployment, or post-deployment integration period, did you experience an emotional event that you would consider very stressful?” After seeing his own brother die when doctors dismissed his symptoms as psychological, Daniel Sullivan found that unforgivable. “When viewed in the context of what happened to my brother, and other people … this looks like an intentional effort to perpetuate the myth of these diseases being psychosomatic,” he says. “If I were filling this out, I would think it was a trap. I would think it was a trap and I wouldn’t want to do it.”