The Legacy of Burn Pits
Posted by defensebaseactcomp on March 23, 2010
Richard Ronald Guilmette of Enterprise, Alabama, was always a man’s man.
The one-time personal trainer was active in kickboxing and Taekwondo when he joined the Army National Guard in October 1987. He trained to become a helicopter pilot and was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan where for a year, beginning in March 2004, he piloted cargo and people on and off the base and conducted air assaults.
Today, Guilmette, 53, is discharged from the military. He is classified as disabled.
Debilitating migraines, asthma, lung disease, PTSD and memory problems keep him mostly at home where he relies on a host of medications, inhalers, and a sleep apnea machine at night. Now, his exercise consists of walking the dog down the street.
Because of his medical conditions, he lost his job as a flight instructor at Fort Rucker, Alabama, a setback he calls a “kick in the butt.”
He tells IB News, “My wife and daughter say I came back a different person.”
While in Afghanistan, Guilmette lived in a tent a quarter mile from a burn pit where black, green, yellow, and orange-colored smoke enveloped him and other servicemen daily.
“The running joke about it was that it was SARS, we all got the SARS, and we smelled like burning baby crap. We joked about it and learned to live with it,” he tells IB News.
And live with it they did.
At an estimated 80 military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, waste was disposed of the old fashioned way – in open burn pits. Many may still be in operation today.
Car batteries, amputated limbs, computers, pesticides, unexploded ordinances, chemicals, rat poison, hydraulic fluid, plastic water bottles, tires, medical waste – just about everything and anything is tossed in the pits that sends off a smoldering low-hanging smoke that engulfs everyone downwind.
There was an air condition in Guilmette’s tent but he says its ducts filled with black mold.
Leon Russell Keith, who worked for defense contractor, KBR as a paramedic at the Balad base in Iraq from March 2006 to July 2007, and at Basra from April 2008 until June 2009, told a Senate Democratic Policy Committee last November, there was nothing that KBR would not put in the burn pits.
“I have never heard of any KBR restrictions on what could be burned in the pit. The color of the smoke would change depending on what was burned. Sometimes the smoke was a yellowish color. But the worst was when the smoke would be a dark greenish color. On these days, the KBR medical clinic where I worked could expect an increased number of patients, all complaining of burning throats, eyes as well as painful breathing… In my estimation, at least 30 to 40 percent of the total patient traffic at the medical clinic was generated by the poor air quality.”
Today Keith has Parkinson’s disease and pulmonary problems and has been medically disqualified to return to Iraq. He also has no health insurance.
Guilmette, and the others who had been in the Army for a long time, knew there was a proper way of disposing of garbage. In the past they had packed it up and taken it to a landfill. Burning all kinds of garbage so close to personnel didn’t make sense.
“I talked to a flight surgeon about it,” says Guilmette. “I asked him about the burned human feces and he said that won’t make you sick, but the burning plastics is really gonna get you. The molecules are so big you can breathe them in. He said the burning plastics can cause cancer and are highly toxic.”
“Plaintiff Guilmette’s conditions are a direct result of his exposure to the toxic emissions from the burn pits,” says theComplaint filed by law firm Motley Rice LLC of Charleston, S.C. (and IB Partner) and Burke PLLC of Washington D.C.
It names defendants Texas-based contractors KBR, Inc.; Kellogg, Brown & Root Services, Inc.; Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC and Halliburton Company and Turkish-based ERKA Ltd.
Guilmette’s name is first in a long list of Plaintiffs that stretches 117 pages.
In all 300 service men and women from 43 states are included and the numbers are growing since the cases were consolidated in December, 2009 in the KBR, Inc., Burn Pit MDL (multidistrict litigation) before Maryland District Judge Roger W. Titus.
“Intake has just tripled,” says Alicia Ward of Motley Rice.
The lawsuit alleges that military contractors exposed military personnel to toxic smoke, ash and fumes which caused chronic illness and wrongful death. The lawsuit’s collective claims include those for battery, breach of contract, breach of duty to warn, future medical expenses, intentional infliction of emotional distress, medical monitoring, negligence and wrongful death.
Estimates are 100,000 may have been exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits.
Across Afghanistan and Iraq, burn pits are overseen by defense contractor, KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton.
“My understanding is they were the only one to get a LOGCAP contract in 2001,” Joe Rice of Motley Rice tells IB News.
The Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) allows military personnel to do their job while the defense contractor takes care of everyday needs – food, water, deliveries and the base medical facilities.
KBR is the largest government contractor in Iraq with more than $20 billion in contracts for logistical support of troops, often in no-bid contracts, thanks in part to friends in high places.
When former Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary, he reportedly paid Halliburton subsidiary, Brown & Root Services, nearly $9 million to determine whether private company could provide services to American services fighting oversees. Cheney went on to serve as CEO of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000 and retired with a severance package worth $36 million, reported the Guardian in 2004.
Rice is trying to find out how many burn pits are still in operation but the effort to uncover documents through discovery has been blocked by the defendants.
“What’s happening now is Halliburton is trying to say everything is protected because we’re in war,” says Rice. “But the question the court can address is the wording of the contract.”
The contract states the contractor is supposed to follow U.S. environmental law or the environmental laws of the country they are occupying. Military field manuals allow for operation of burn pits on a “short-term” basis.
“There is no reason the courts can’t look at the contract and say, “Did you breach the contract?” asks Rice.
To further muddy the issue, KBR said in a statement to IB News, “KBR never operated or provided support services for the burn pit at Joint Base Balad” and in other areas where KBR does provide burn pit services, “KBR does so in accordance with the relevant provisions of the LOGCAP contract.”
In other words – it is up to the Army, not KBR to decide if a burn pit can be used or an incinerator is necessary and where it will be constructed. KBR says it was just following orders.
“In addition to hearing the shocking stories about the kinds of waste being burned in the burn pits, I have listened to personal reports from our service men and women about injuries that they have sustained, some as serious as lung cancer and leukemia, ” says attorney Elizabeth Burke.
“All passed physical tests before being deployed. Many had plans of a life-long military career. Today some of our clients can’t walk up a flight of stairs; others can’t get out of bed.”