Burn Pits and Betrayal: How the U.S. Poisoned its Veterans
As the U.S. marks Veterans Day, the documentary ‘Delay, Deny, Hope You Die’ explores how the Pentagon and its contractors have neglected soldiers poisoned by toxins on military bases overseas
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Veterans Day honors those who served in the U.S. military and the overseas conflicts many have fought in. A new documentary, though, shines a light on the poor treatment of U.S. soldiers in the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. military, along with the firms Halliburton and KBR are accused of poisoning tens of thousands of U.S. troops and contractors over at military bases over the last 17 years. The soldiers were sickened by toxins from burn pits. That’s military zones where trash and waste are openly set on fire. This is a short clip from a documentary called Delay, Deny, Hope You Die.
SPEAKER: The concept of burning trash in war is not new. It’s as old as war itself. The difference here was that this war was lasting for a decade. It included tens of thousands of troops and personnel to support the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. Where did they burn the trash? In these huge, open-air pits.
AARON MATÉ: That’s a clip from the documentary Delay, Deny, Hope You Die. I’m joined now by the film’s director, Gregory Lovett. Gregory, welcome. Set the scene for us. What are burn pits, how many are they, and how have they sickened so many people?
GREGORY LOVETT: A burn pit is basically a dump. When the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, they didn’t really give a lot of thought as to what they were going to do with the waste that was produced by soldiers on the battlefield. Each soldier produces about nine pounds of waste per day. That’s tens of thousands of pounds of garbage every day.
The military decided to just throw the garbage into these big holes in the ground and burn it. They burned everything, for plastic, rubber, metals, up to and including amputated body parts. They set it on fire with jet fuel. Every base had a burn pit. There was about 250 located across Iraq and Afghanistan. The result was this huge plume of smoke that was just settling over these bases. The soldiers talked to me about how they would literally have to dust themselves off with all the ashes that were falling on them.
AARON MATÉ: What sort of health problems did this lead to?
GREGORY LOVETT: At the beginning, while the servicemen were overseas, they were experiencing mostly minor discomfort, throat irritation, nose and eye problems. In Iraq, they had a term for it. They called it the Iraqi crud. They warned soldiers when they came over, “You’re going to be sick. Get used to it.” Then depending on the degree, some were actually in the infirmary for many, many weeks.
The real issues started after they got home. Now soldiers are suffering from everything including respiratory issues to rare forms of cancers and some are dying or have already died.
AARON MATÉ: How has the Veterans Administration been about treating them, paying for their medical care?
GREGORY LOVETT: The military and the VA denies that there’s any link between burn pits and the illnesses that these servicemen and women are suffering from. The care, the treatment that they’re getting is very spotty. I know many service members who are ill, and they’re not getting the treatment that they need. There’s one man in the documentary who actually has a tracheostomy, so he can’t eat or talk. He needs to have a feeding tube. Therefore, he needs to have a certain kind of food that’s not being provided by the VA. He has to rely on donations from family members and friends because obviously he can’t work. It’s up to the service member to prove that their illnesses are caused by the burn pits, and even though they quite often get private doctors that link their illness to toxic exposure, the military and the VA continues to deny it.
AARON MATÉ: On what grounds?
GREGORY LOVETT: On the grounds that they say, “You’ve been released from service for a number of years.” If you’ve been out of the service for a year and you become ill, it’s up to the soldier to prove that their illness was service-related. In the case of cancer, for example, you don’t get cancer in a day. It takes many, many years for it to develop. Even though a private doctor will say, “This is a result of toxic exposure,” the VA says, “Prove it.” You can’t go back to Iraq and Afghanistan and start collecting physical evidence or anything like that. The only thing you can do is point to the fact that you have a disease that’s caused by toxic exposure. The VA says, “Yeah, but that toxic exposure could be caused by anything. It could be caused possibly due to your service, but maybe it’s just the dust in the air.” Iraq and Afghanistan were not clean places to begin with. It could be caused by something else. It’s up to the soldier to prove it, and if they can’t prove it, their claim is denied.
AARON MATÉ: I want to go to a few clips about what the military and the firms Halliburton and KBR knew. This is another clip from Delay, Deny, Hope You Die.
SPEAKER: It turns out the military knew all along that this toxic exposure could very well hurt the troops living by these burn pits. Lieutenant Colonel Curtis in 2006 had written a memo saying the pollution there was dangerous, that it would be causing health hazards to live and work near the pits.
SPEAKER: It was completely buried at CENTCOM. No one took it serious and they never addressed these issues.
AARON MATÉ: Greg, how does this response to the veterans, in terms of denying them care and denying responsibility, square with what the U.S. military and these firms Halliburton and KBR actually knew?
GREGORY LOVETT: I’ve seen memos, excuse me, from as far as back as 2006. There’s an internal Air Force memo which states that the Air Force knew that use of the burn pits was going to cause illness among soldiers. That memo was buried. Soldiers certainly weren’t told about it, and Central Command just denied that it even existed. It came out many, many years later. It was leaked many, many years later.
I have seen other contracts between KBR and the military which stated that KBR was supposed to manage these burn pits according to EPA regulations. Each piece of the base was supposed to be a little bit of America overseas, so they were supposed to file under EPA regulations which as we know prevents people from burning rubber, and plastics, and metals, and polystyrenes and all these kind of things. Not only do we have testimony of people who saw these kinds of things being burned, we also have video and photographic evidence of it as well.
There’s no doubt that the military knew that what they were doing was damaging to the soldiers. There’s no doubt that KBR knew it was damaging to the soldiers. Unfortunately, nobody’s really listening to the soldiers themselves, and nobody’s really helping them.
AARON MATÉ: You have a clip in the film where some questions are put to a contract lawyer for KBR. Let’s go to that clip.
SPEAKER: There would be an indemnification even for negligence and unreasonable acts by KBR’s managers, agents, employees.
SPEAKER: If they fell within the definition of what is covered.
SPEAKER: Even if they caused injury or death to third parties.
SPEAKER: Under the provisions of this clause, that is correct.
SPEAKER: Even if they caused injury or death to civilian employees.
SPEAKER: Under the provisions of the clause, that’s correct.
SPEAKER: Even if they caused injury or death to American soldiers.
SPEAKER: It does not carve out exceptions for civilians or soldiers.
AARON MATÉ: Greg, how did it happen that the U.S. government came to agree to underwrite all the damages caused by a company like KBR?
GREGORY LOVETT: That’s probably the biggest tragedy of the whole thing. Halliburton, as you probably know used to run by a man named Dick Cheney. He was CEO before he became vice president. To begin with he gave them a no-bid contract to manage a number of services across the battlefield. One of them was burn pits, which they then farmed out to their subsidiary company, KBR.
At the time, KBR requested and was granted an indemnification. If they are found liable in any way, although there’s a court case going on now. It’s been going on for eight years, and there’s no end in sight. Who knows if they will actually be found liable? If they are, and if they are fined, they don’t have to pay. The American taxpayers are going to have to pay. Why this was done, I have no idea. It’s just politics.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Greg, the VA a few years ago set up a burn pit registry in which anyone who has been impacted by the burn pits can register. The data is collected and that was billed as an attempt to better help those who have been harmed. Has that offered any improvement at all?
GREGORY LOVETT: No. First of all, the registry is flawed. If you have a family member who has passed away, you can’t register that person, so anybody who has already died, even though they wouldn’t be helped by the registry, obviously the information might help others. They can’t help others. If you were a contractor, you cannot sign up for the registry. Two-thirds of the people that might want to register are prevented from registering.
The result of the registry so far has just been to collect numbers. So far, around 110,000 people have signed up but nothing has actually come of it yet. There are some debates going on in Congress. There have been some bills saying, “We’re going to start doing research,” but the bottom line is, it’s too little, too late. These soldiers are dying so quickly that this information is not going to help them.
AARON MATÉ:: Right. Finally, Greg, we’re discussing this in the week of Veterans Day when across the U.S. veterans are honored. My question to you is, after making this film, your reflections, your views on how veterans truly are honored and treated in the U.S. based on witnessing this experience with the burn pits?
GREGORY LOVETT: The sad thing is that this is not new. Anybody who remembers Agent Orange from the Vietnam War knows that soldiers went through decades of trying to be recognized for the illnesses that they suffered. Then you had, in the first Gulf War conflict, you had PTSD and Gulf War syndrome. This is not the first thing this has happened. It’s very discouraging, I think.
I personally wish we didn’t have to have a military. I wish we didn’t have to have war but the bottom line is these people, they served their country. They believed that they’re doing the right thing. They’re not doing it for fame and fortune. They’re not making a lot of money, let’s be honest. They’re doing it because they believe it’s the right thing to do. It seems to me that you have an obligation to help these people when they go home, regardless of what they’re suffering from.
As I said, anything that comes now is going to be too little, too late. Maybe the future will bring something different, and I hope that the documentary might waken something up in people so they start to realize we can’t keep treating people this way and that maybe for future generations of service members, it will change.
AARON MATÉ: How can people watch the film?
GREGORY LOVETT: Right now, we’re doing a little tour of cinemas through the country but the big thing we have is we’re doing a special Veterans Day offer. People can go to vimeo.com, that’s V-I-M-E-O .com/ondemand/burnpits. They can pre register, and then they can watch it this weekend. It won’t be available online again until next year but if they go to vimeo.com/ondemand/burnpits, it’s only $5. You can then stream it this coming weekend and I hope a lot of people will do that, because that’s the only way we can really get the word out and help create awareness for this crisis.
AARON MATÉ: The film is Delay, Deny, Hope You Die. The director is Gregory Lovett. Thank you, Gregory.
GREGORY LOVETT: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.