Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Burn pits and veterans issues

For six months, Joshua Casteel slept 100 yards from an open-air burn pit that devoured everything from plastics and paint to electronics and human body parts.
The Cedar Rapids native didn’t know smoke from the pit may also have been devouring his lungs.
Casteel, a 32-year-old writer and peace activist, died Aug. 25 of lung cancer his family believes was caused by toxins from the burn pit at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, where Casteel served as an interrogator in 2004.
“I don’t think any of the soldiers thought twice about it,” said Kristi Casteel, Joshua’s mother. “Most of them, I’m sure, had no idea what they were breathing.”
Burn pits were the primary trash disposal system for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 200 tons of waste burned daily at some of the Army’s largest military bases. Among materials burned were plastics, metal cans, rubber, chemicals, paint and munitions, according to a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine.
These types of fires are illegal in the United States.
“That is for a reason,” Kristi Casteel said. “Because they’re toxic.”

The above is from Erin Jordan's "Soldier's family believes cancer death tied to Army burn pits" (Cedar Rapids Gazette).  It's her follow up to last week's report.  Iraq War veteran Joshua Casteel is only the most recent veteran or contractor to die from exposure to the burn pits.  What are burn pits?  June 13th, Senator Mark Udall explained burn pits while speaking to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee:

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, open air burn pits were widely used at forward operating bases.  Disposing of trash and other debris was a major challenge.  Commanders had to find a way to dispose of waste while concentrating on the important mission at hand.  The solution that was chosen, however, had serious risks.  Pits of waste were set on fire -- sometimes using jet fuel for ignition.  Some burn pits were small but others covered multiple acres of land. Often times, these burn pits would turn the sky black.  At Joint Base Balad Iraq, over 10 acres of land were used for burning toxic debris.  At the height of its operations, Balad hosted approximately 25,000 military, civilian and coalition provision authority personnel.  These personnel would be exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals released into the atmosphere.  According to air quality measurements, the air at Balad had multiple particulates harmful to humans: Plastics and Styrofoams, metals, chemicals from paints and solvents, petroleum and lubricants, jet fuel and unexploded ordnance, medical and other dangerous wastes.  The air samples at Joint Base Balad turned up some nasty stuff. Particulate matter, chemicals that form from the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas garbage or other organic substances, volatile organic compounds such as acetone and benzene  -- benzene, as you all know, is known to cause leukemia --  and dioxins which are associated with Agent Orange.  According to the American Lung Association, emissions from burning waste contain fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. All of this was in the air and being inhaled into the lungs of service members.

Udall is championing a burn pit registry in the Senate.  In the House, US House Rep Todd Akin has led the battle this time.  But this isn't the first battle.  While he was still a senator, Evan Bayh was among those leading the battle.

October 21, 2009, then-Senator Evan Bayh appeared before the US Senate Veterans Affairs Committee explaining the bill for a registry he was sponsoring, advocating for it.

I am here today to testify about a tragedy that took place in 2003 on the outskirts of Basra in Iraq. I am here on behalf of Lt Col James Gentry and the brave men and women who served under his command in the First Battalion, 152nd Infantry of the Indiana National Guard. I spoke with Lt Col Gentry by phone just this last week. Unfortunately, he is at home with his wife, Luanne, waging a vliant fight against terminal cancer. The Lt Col was a healthy man when he left for Iraq. Today, he is fighting for his life. Tragically, many of his men are facing their own bleak prognosis as a result of their exposure to sodium dichromate, one of the most lethal carcinogens in existence. The chemical is used as an anti-corrosive for pipes. It was strewn all over the water treatment facility guarded by the 152nd Infantry. More than 600 soldiers from Indiana, Oregon, West Virginia and South Carolina were exposed. One Indiana Guardsman has already died from lung disease and the Army has classified it as a service-related death. Dozens of the others have come forward with a range of serious-respiratory symptoms. [. . .] Mr. Chairman, today I would like to tell this Committee about S1779. It is legislation that I have written to ensure that we provide full and timely medical care to soldiers exposed to hazardous chemicals during wartime military service like those on the outskirts of Basra. The Health Care for Veterans Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act of 2009 is bipartisan legislation that has already been co-sponsored by Senators Lugar, Dorgan, Rockefeller, Byrd, Wyden and Merkley. With a CBO score of just $10 million, it is a bill with a modest cost but a critical objective: To enusre that we do right by America's soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals while defending our country. This bill is modeled after similar legislation that Congress approved in 1978 following the Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam conflict.

It should have been easy to take care of then.  Then-Senator Byron Dorgan had worked hard to lay the groundwork on the issue.    Dorgan was Chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and they held many hearings on this very serious issue.  Click here to go to the hearing archives page.   But the same senator who had a fit about VA Secretary Eric Shinseki allowing more Agent Orange claims, buried this measure in the Senate.  That was Jim Tester. He will not be in the next Congress.  Veterans in his state made clear to him that he did not have their support so he did not seek re-election.

Let's leave the burn pit issue for a second to note an e-mail.  I've called the press out for refusing to hold the Secretary of Defense accountable (the easy press offered as Robert Gates stepped down when the press should have been reviewing how he handled the department's major issues).  A veteran pointed out that a number of groups making endorsements should be doing the same.  In other words, if they're endorsing the administration in this election, they should be informing you of the suicide rate when Barack was sworn in and where it is now, examining the sexual assault rate, examining wait times "and intentions don't mean s**t.  Don't tell me what they intended to do or tried to do if you're telling me to vote Obama back into office..  Don't give me whines.  On wait time, I know it has increased.  So I don't see how any veteran can ignore that or minimize it.  If you want me to vote for Obama, you better have a long list of reasons and examples because  I don't see how he's helped veterans at all."  The veteran is referring to groups such as Vote Vets which aren't really veterans groups in the sense that the American Legion or VFW or the Blind Veterans Association.  The groups like the VFW are about veterans issues.  They don't exist to pimp a party.  All Vote Vets does is pimp the Democratic Party.  Fortunately, a number of veterans have learned that.  Sadly, they've learned it the hard way.  They thought the group had an ethical position.  What they learned was that the group picks up and drops concerns each election cycle based on the needs of the Democratic Party.

I will note that they've rushed to endorse Jim Tester.

He's a senator and he often has many good qualities.   But it is surprising that veterans would endorse him.  Only Jim Webb has thrown up more road blocks for veterans.  I attend the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearings and I am still surprised that Tester's been endorsed.  The only issue he is a leader on is the needs of rural veterans.

On other veterans issues, he's rather embarrassing.  September 23, 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to respond to questions about his decision to expand the  pool of recognized victims of Agent Orange.  You'll find Jim Webb acting the fool that day.  He's not the only one.  From that day's snapshot:

Shinseki pointed out that "Congress had an opportunity to review my decision and decide to do its part" and obviously agreed.  So what was the hearing for?  It was a waste of time because Webb wanted to have a hissy.  Please note, we never got a hearing by the Committee in trying to determine why fall 2009 tuition payments to veterans under the Post 9/11 GI Bill arrived as late as March and April 2010.  That effected people's lives.  That effected veterans' children.  And there was no oversight, there was no hearing.  But Webb and Tester wanted to pitch a fit. Tester being convinced that 'bad' veterans are hidden away somewhere who  "pounds a couple of packs of cigarettes a day and a like amount of alcohol" to get extra monies from the government claiming heart disease.  I'm not really sure what "a like amount of alcohol" is to a "couple of packs of cigarettes" -- one is liquid.  Is Tester that stupid, really?  And could he next hop on a scale since we're paying his medical bills as well since he serves in the US Congress and since, when he was in profile returning to his seat, he so closely resembled William Conrad.  What are you pounding, Tester?  And why are we paying for it?  If you want to talk risk factors on veterans and claim that its your playground to do so because of tax payer monies, let me repeat, we the tax payers pay for your health care Jon Tester -- for the rest of your life.  Maybe it's time we started imposing penalities on Congressional members with "risk factors"?  Especially those who know they can't win an argument against Agent Orange exposure so they try to create this little side dialogue that's both meaningless and insulting.

No one should smoke.  I smoked for years.  I got a cancer scare as a result.  For health reasons, no one should smoke.  But people will smoke if they want to and it's not illegal.  So it's amazing that veterans who served now have to justify their smoking to Tester?  Or that in a hearing, a veterans hearing, when he can't argue logically against Shinseki's decision to expand Agent Orange claims, Tester's fall back position is: Lying veterans smoke and drink and then try to blame their problems on Agent Orange.

 If you're a veteran and your main issue is rural issues (access to care, for example, video conferencing, etc.), Tester is a strong advocate.  But in other areas, Tester has been a huge disappointment.  The last four years, he's minimized VA problems and refused to defend veterans.  The Post 9-11 GI Bill payments is an example of how he failed veterans of today's wars.  And there are a lot of senators on that list.  The House Veterans Affairs Committee -- mainly in Subcommittees -- did more on that issue than the Senate.  Two of the strongest leaders on that issue would lose their seats in the 2010 elections:  John Hall and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.  They worked very hard on getting accountability and getting answers when veterans of today's wars were having to take out loans because the promised checks hadn't arrived.

It must be great for candidates from the two major parties that there are organizations that exist solely to endorse them based on their party i.d.  And it's great for those organizations because it doesn't take a lot of work to determine who is the Democratic or Republican candidate.  Actually examining what they do in hearings and their voting records?  That would be hard work.  That would be real work.

Back to burn pits,  Denise Williams (Chicago Now) notes:

These are some of the known – and disturbing facts:
– the DoD knows and has known of the exposures, proven by a 2008 unclassified assessment of air quality at bases in Iraq and Djibouti.
– the projected cost of the Burn Pit Registry project will be $2 million dollars over the next five years, a paltry sum
– the defense contractor KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary has received billions of dollars to build and maintain military bases in Afghanistan, Iraq and all over the world.
– if the VA or the DoD admits to a causative effect in the operation of burn pits for the illnesses faced by military personnel, the question of when it was reasonable to assume this correlation existed then becomes the most  important issue.
This last one is not a presumptive or baseless fear on the part of the DoD as dozens of suits have already been filed against KBR for their complicit role in the deaths and illnesses of service members. Those filing suit hold no illusions about the battle they face as KBR is one of the world’s largest construction companies, and one of this country’s most politically connected.

On that last one, oh, too bad.  DoD's job is to protect service members, not to help corporations turn a profit at the expense of service members' lives. 

Veterans Day is approaching, Monday, November 12th.  Clinton Township is just outside Detroit.   Jenny Whalen (Patch) reports that the Clinton Township's Mall at Partridge Creek should be a destination for veterans November 11th and November 12th.  Why?  The mall's California Pizza Kitchen will be offering "a complimentary pizza and non-alcholic beverage" for veterans and active duty military service members on those two days.  Good for that California Pizza Kitchen.  It's a shame that all of them across the country aren't doing the same.  If you know of an eatery doing something similar for Veterans day, feel free to e-mail and put in your subject heading "Veterans Day" so that people going through the e-mails (thank you to everyone for that) are able to sort them. 

Also remember that a number of areas did not do a parade to welcome home veterans after the December drawdown in Iraq.  Most of those who did not had stated they would be pulling that into their Veterans Day celebrations.  You may remember when Rick Perry was in the Republican Party primary, he called out Barack for not having a national parade.  Here, we pointed out that Perry was Governor of Texas and, as such, didn't need President Barack Obama's permission to stage a parade or celebration.  But Perry refused to do so.  I frequently felt bad about hitting Perry so hard on this issue.  But, you may have noticed, he never did do anything for veterans while standing on a soapbox whining about what Barack wasn't doing.  So I'd be especially interested to see what Perry has planned for Texas this Veterans Day.

For those who are late on this, Congress had originally allocated money for a parade for veterans of the Iraq War.  That money got spent.  We're now supposedly facing a 'fiscal cliff.'  I do understand postponing a parade.  I call Barack out for many things, but I do understand that.  I also support local efforts on the part of communities to step in and fill that void.

The following community sites -- plus Susan's On the Edge, On The Wilder Side, The Diane Rehm Show, Adam Kokesh, C-SPAN and Antiwar.com --  updated last night and this morning:

The e-mail address for this site is common_ills@yahoo.com.

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