Toxic Trash Pits Take Toll on U.S. Soldiers


| 12/19/2011 3:36:24 PM


Tags: health, air, Iraq War, politics, burn pits, waste management, environment, Oxford American, Keith Goetzman,

Balad burn pit smoke plume

Did the United States poison tens of thousands of its own soldiers in Iraq with fumes from burning toxic trash? Before you consider it an outlandish suggestion, I suggest you read J. Malcolm Garcia’s moving account in the Oxford American of two American soldiers who made it back from their tours of duty having escaped insurgents’ shells, bullets, and improvised explosive devices—only to die slow, torturous deaths from the effects of garbage torched in open pits by the U.S. military.

Personal stories like those of Billy McKenna and Kevin Wilkins may only become more common in coming years, according to Garcia, since the U.S. military operated at least 23 burn pits in Iraq before combat operations ended this year, including a notoriously noxious one that often literally cast a pall over Balad Air Base.

“The burn pit at Balad consumed about 250 tons of waste a day,” he writes, “exposing 25,000 U.S. military personnel and thousands of contractors to toxic fumes.”

Garcia’s immersive narrative is a humanizing look into a slowly unfolding story that has been reported in bits and pieces for a few years, but hasn’t entirely sunken into the national consciousness, perhaps in part because it runs so counter to a reflexively patriotic, military-booster mindset: We wouldn’t have harmed our own soldiers, would we?

It just so turns out that we probably did. Writes Garcia: