Open-air Burn Pits Poisoned Thousands of U.S. Soldiers
I knew it would happen soon. That roller-coaster feeling. That sinking feeling in your stomach. All these military flights into war zones were the same. Boring as hell, followed by sheer terror (of landing), then walk out into an oven, followed by boring as hell briefings. At this point, we were in boring as hell to terror transition. I started strapping all my gear to the side of the C-130. A Colonel sitting across from me asked me what I was doing. “We are about to do an anti-terror landing Sir.” He stared at me quizzically. “The plane will dive down to land.” That, he understood.
Within a minute, it started. The nose of the 130 was pointed down. The look of terror on everyone’s face told you our time in Iraq had begun. For a second during these type of landings, you seem to, temporary, go weightless. I loved it. It was like being an astronaut for a split-second. I could see my body armor that I tied to the wall, began to float. For a split-second, I forgot I was going to the worst place on Earth if you were an American. I forgot I had left my wife and two daughters a world away. I forgot it all. Then in a flash, I was back. The beginning of the landing was normal, but then things started to go wrong.
The plane suddenly pulled out of the dive and veered left. My first thought was something had happened to the left engine of the 130. While the aircraft was still in a left bank, the flight engineer was rushing to the back of the plane, a look of concern on his face. The image of the man in the flight suit scurrying to the back of the plane did not bring a sense of calm to the scene. Due to the drastic changes in direction and no windows, I couldn’t tell if we were going down or not. I thought about dying in a plane crash before I even landed in the damn country. How would my kids grow up without me?
Then the C-130 began to level out. Things began to calm down. Nobody said anything. Nobody asked questions, talked to anyone, nothing. After circling the base for another 10 minutes, our plane made a normal approach to the runway. Apparently, they had abandoned a repeat of the ‘anti-terror landing'. Soon I felt the tires of the airplane hit the runway, bounce a little, and then begin to roll. We were here.
As the 130 was taxing down the runway, I suddenly had a flashback. My father had fought in Vietnam. He fought in multiple tours. The only thing that stopped him from staying in Vietnam indefinitely was a 50-caliber bullet. On February 22nd, 1969, while manning the door gunner position on a rescue mission on a CH-47, a 50 caliber anti-aircraft gun opened fire on the chopper. A bullet hit my father’s left leg. After a lot of surgery and blood transfusions, my father kept his life and his leg. Though permanently disabled, it was remarkable the doctors could save his leg at all.
In 1986, the Vietnam war film Platoon came out. My father took be to see that movie at least 6-times. The part in the beginning, when the C-130 brings the new troops to Vietnam was one of my favorite parts when I was a kid. I imagined myself in that position one day. And, here I was. Today was the day. The rear cargo door was opened. A flood of hot air rushed in. This was the oven part. It wasn’t as bad as Saudi, but it wasn’t pleasant either. It smelled like a burnt cat. I had a lot of experience departing airplanes in exotic nations-Korea, Japan, England, Romania etc. The only country I have been to that smelled like a BBQ cat, is Iraq.
We were told to put our body armor and helmets on because we were just attacked. Apparently, that is why the C-130 abandoned their first landing attempt. I heard conflicting stories later. One version was they fired mortars on the airfield right before we landed. The other version is they mortared the airfield and fired a high-caliber bullet into our 130, somewhere in the left wing. Maybe that’s why the flight engineer was frantically moving around the plane. I have no idea, either way, it was a crappy way to come to Iraq.
We filed into some room and listened to the boring as hell briefing phase. I can’t remember what they said. I’m sure I wasn’t paying attention. After the briefings were over, we were released to our units. Being a Sergeant, I was taken with the other NCOs to our living quarters. While we were driving out to our quarters, I started to notice a giant black plume in the distance. My first thought was that must have been where the mortars had hit. Another Sergeant in the vehicle asked the driver what the smoke was. The driver explained it was the burn-pit, where all the trash on base was burned. He said soon we would all get the ‘Iraqi crud’. He examined we would all start wheezing and coughing up black gunk. He also volunteered that if we spelled barbecue, it wasn’t from the chow hall. It was from amputated body parts being thrown into the burn pit.
By the time we reached our quarters, the burn pit stench was overpowering. I couldn’t believe the Air Force would allow this. The military, in general, is consumed with rules and regulations. There are rules for everything. Rules for what grass you can walk on, even rules for what kinds of sex you can have. However, the military seemed to have no issue with burning 147 tons of trash a day, right next to thousands of US soldiers. But, I was much more concerned with the constant mortar fire and IEDs than I was the burn pit.
As predicted, within a couple of days I developed a respiratory infection. Others did as well. During my tour in Iraq I frequently required treatment for respiratory illnesses. There was no safe place on base. No place to hide from the smoke. It hung all over everything like fog. Leaving a thin layer of dark ash over everything. I imagined how every time I ate anything, I was also ingesting whatever was floating in the burn pit ash.
It is human nature to get used to unpleasant things, I believe. No matter how horrible the situation, you either adapt to it or fall apart. Most people choose to adapt. And that’s what I did. I just had to live with the burn pit. What could I, a Staff Sergeant do? The unit I was assigned to only cared about what officers thought and those officers were more concerned with their own careers than the well-being of their troops on base. So, I kept my mouth shut. I followed orders like a good airman.
A couple of years after my tour in Iraq, I retired from the Air Force due to a spine injury. A couple of months after I retired, I saw an Air Force Times article about the possible health issues tied to the burn pits in Iraq. At the time, I was more concerned with trying to support my family, then what the burn pit may have done to me. I decided to go back to college using the Post 9-11 GI Bill. By 2012, I had graduated college and begun a new career in Public Administration.
While in College, I began developing respiratory problems I had never had before. I began having crippling sinus infections. Also, my immune system seemed much weaker. I was constantly sick with colds, and other ailments. Luckily, nothing worse developed…yet. Others have not been as fortunate.
I have decided to dedicate myself to this issue until the U.S. Government shows the same loyalty as those who served them, under appalling conditions. In the United States, it is illegal to smoke a cigarette in a restaurant, yet burning amputated body parts and chemically treated uniforms near 25,000 U.S. Soldiers is just fine in Iraq. Somehow, our politicians seem to have gotten the idea that American soldiers lives are disposable. That is the only explanation. If a factory poisoned a local community with an open-air burn pit in the United States, the Government response would be immediate. Yet, we soldiers were poisoned a decade ago, and still, no help from the government. So, they must believe that since soldiers are often called to sacrifice for their nation anyway, somehow, in their minds that makes our lives less valuable.
Another heartbreaking fact is this is not the first time the U.S. government has poisoned its own soldiers and lied about it. From 1961 to 1971, Agent Orange was used to kill vegetation in Vietnam. This was done to remove vegetation that communist forces were using for cover and concealment. Of course, it came out that a major ingredient in Agent Orange was Dioxin. After decades of veterans dying and becoming ill due to Dioxin exposure, the government finally admitted the connection between Agent Orange and the poisoning of American Veterans. Decades wasn’t fast enough for many veterans. They died in Vietnam and didn’t even know it.
Now, history is repeating itself. Veterans are dying, and the Government is lying. It is very sad the Government learned nothing from the Agent Orange tragedy. Since the Government will not do the right thing on its own, it falls to us, the people, to ensure it does what is right.