Friday, December 21, 2012

First Lady provides an update on President Talabani

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is in Germany having been medically transported there yesterday.  Al Mada interviewed First Lady Hero Ibrahim Ahmed on the plane en route to Germany yesterday.  She stated that her husband's condition was stable and that he was able to gesture.  Seh stressed that the President was giving his all to bring peace in Iraq (Jalal has been mediating on several of the crises Nouri al-Maliki's created in the last two years -- ongoing crises).  She explains that Talabani returned to Baghdad solely to address the crisis involving the stand-off between the Peshmerga and Nouri's forces in the disputed areas.  She stated everyone knows that the president was willing to do anything to resolve the issue, even sacrifice his own health.  The couple has been married for over thirty years.

On Monday evening, following a meeting with Nouri, Jalal was taken to Baghdad Medical Center Hospital for what the prime minister's office has said was a stroke but the president's staff has left it as an unidentified health condition.  The news broke on Tuesday.  Wednesday, Iraqi doctors were joined by British and German doctors.  It was felt that Talabani was in stable enough condition and could be transferred to Germany.  Al Mada reports he is  at Berlin's  Charite University Hospital which is one of Europe's largest hospitals and was established in the year 1710. 

Of Jalal's role in Iraqi politics, AKE Group's John Drake tells AFP, "While on paper his role is somewhat limited, his influence and mediation skills have gone a long way in smoothing over the country's troubled political scene. Some may describe his position as 'ceremonial' but he has made it a lot more active, simply through dialogue and discussion, which play a strong role in Iraqi politics."

Now turning to the issue of veterans and contractors the US had serving in Iraq, specifically around burn pits.  Burn Pits 360 is a solid resource for those wishing to learn more.  Burn pits were where all the things -- human waste, medical waste, car batteries, etc -- were tossed and burned exposing many to health hazards.  L. Russel Keith described what took place at Joint Base Balad, "While I was stationed at Balad, I experienced the effects of the massive burn pit that burned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The ten-acre pit was located in the northwest corner of the base. An acrid, dark black smoke from the pit would accumulate and hang low over the base for weeks at a time. Every spot on the base was touched by smoke from the pit; everyone who served at the base was exposed to the smoke. It was almost impossible to escape, even in our living units."

These hazards were not something that was only just discovered.  In fact, a government document dates back to November 6, 2006, Lt Col Darrin Curtis' memo entitled "Burn Pit Health Hazards" [PDF format warning, click here]. November 6, 2009, Curtis appeared at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing.  Senator Byron Dorgan was the Chair of the DPC.  Excerpt.
Chair Byron Dorgan: Mr. Curtis, why did you decide to write the 2006 memorandum? And did anyone else at that point share your concerns about the health impact of burn pits?

Lt Col Darrin Curtis: Yes, Senator, they did. The Chief of Air Space Medicine had the same concerns I did. The memo was initially written so that we could expedite the installation of the incinerators.  From my understanding, there were spending limits of monies with health issues and not health issues so I wanted to write the report to show that there are health issues associated with burn pits so that we could hopefully accelerate the installation of the incinerators. 
Chair Byron Dorgan: Of the type of burn pit you saw in Iraq in 2006 -- that's some while after the war began and infrastructure had been created and so on except without incinerators -- if something of that nature were occurring in a neighborhood here in Washington DC or any American city, what are the consequences to them?
Lt Col Darrin Curtis: At least fines and possibly jail. 

Chair Byron Dorgan: Because?
Lt Col Darrin Curtis: Of the regulations that are out there today.

Chair Byron Dorgan: Because it's a serious risk to human health?

Lt Col Darrin Curtis: Yes, sir.

Chair Byron Dorgan: You say that when you arrived in Iraq an inspector for the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine -- which is CHPPM -- told you that the Balad burn pit was the worst environmental site that he has seen and that included the ten years he had performed environmental clean up for the Army and Defense's Logistic Agency.  And yet in your testimony, you also say that CHPPM has done this study and says adverse health risks are unlikely. So you're talking about an inspector from CHPPM that says 'this is the worst I've seen' and then a report comes out later from CHPPM that says: "Adverse health risks are unlikely. Long-term health effects are not expected to occur from breathing the smoke." Contradiction there and why?

Lt Col Darrin Curtis: I think any organization, you're going to have people with differences of opinion. But at CHPPM, I'm sure that was the same-same outcome there. Cause I don't know if that individual --

Chair Byron Dorgan: (Overlapping) Do you think that CHPPM -- do you think CHPPM assessment that's been relied on now is just wrong?

Lt Col Darrin Curtis: (Overlapping) I think -- I think -- Senator, I think the hard line that there is no health effects is a -- is a very strong comment that we don't have the data to say. Do we have the data to say that it is a health risk?  I don't think we have that either. But I do not think we have the data to say there is no health risk.

Chair Byron Dorgan: You are a bio-environmental engineer what is -- what is your own opinion? Without testing or data, you saw the burn pits, you were there, you hear the testimony of what went in the burn pits, you hear Dr. Szema's assessment.  What's your assessment?

Lt Col Darrin Curtis: I think we're going to look at a lot of sick people later on.

At that hearing, Dorgan and Senator Tom Udall expressed their belief that a Truman-style committee was needed to get to the way KRB and others exposed service members and contractors to dangerous chemicals.  That committee was never created.  But there is a victory this week.  Yesterday, Senator Tom Udall's office issued a press statement:

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) announced today that their bipartisan legislation to create a registry of service members and veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals and fumes from open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan has passed the Senate.

The Burn Pit Open Registry Act was included as part of an omnibus veterans measure, S. 3202, the "Dignified Burial and Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012," which passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday. Udall and Corker first introduced the measure in 2011 with cosponsors Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Mark Udall (D-Colo.). It was unanimously passed by the Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee in September.

"When our servicemen and women suffer from unexplained, invisible wounds, we must act to ensure they receive the treatment necessary to heal," Udall said. "That is what we have done today, and I urge the House to act quickly on this legislation so military families, medical professionals and the Department of Defense can have the resources to provide our veterans with proper care."

"This registry will assist the VA in learning the effects of open-air burn pit exposure among our troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Corker. "We have an obligation to make all veterans aware of health risks associated with their service so they can access any related benefits."

We'll come back to the statement in a moment.  Senators serving on the DPC with Byron Dorgan grasped the importance of the burn pit issue and the need for a burn pit registry.  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.  Excerpt:

 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

Senators Dorgan, Robert Byrd, Ron Wyden, Dick Lugar, Jeff Merkley and Jay Rockefeller were co-sponsors.  Since then, Senator Byron Dorgan and Senator  has left the Senate choosing not to seek re-election the 2010 mid-terms, Senator Dick Lugar is leaving the Senate (Senator John Kerry and other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted this at yesterday's hearing and praised the Ranking Member of the Committee for his work in the Senate over the last 36 years) and Senator Robert Byrd has passed away.  But the fight for a burn pit registry has continued.

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.

In the House, US House Rep Todd Akin has led the battle in the last years.  He did not win re-election in November and will be leaving the Congress.  Hopefully, there will be no hang ups in the House. 

Back to Senator Udall's press release from yesterday:

Udall began work on this legislation after meeting MSgt Jessey Baca and his wife Maria of Albuquerque, who detailed Jessey's battle with cancer, chronic bronchiolitis, chemical induced asthma, brain lesions, TBI, PTSD and numerous other ailments believed to have been caused by exposure to burn pits in Iraq. Earlier this year, Udall testified before a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on the legislation and mentioned the work of the Bacas, who had traveled from New Mexico to attend the hearing. Video of the Senator Udall testifying before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is available here and a photo of Udall with the Bacas here.

"I am proud of the bipartisan work we have done for military families like Jessey and Marie Baca, whose efforts will help many others receive the answers they deserve after serving our country so bravely," Udall said.

"We need to know more about the connections between burn pit exposure and health problems affecting our servicemen and women, and this registry will help us gather the information we need," Bingaman said. "I applaud Senators Udall and Corker for working so hard to get this provision over the finish line."

Once enacted, the bill will create a registry similar to the Agent Orange Registry and the Gulf War Registry. The establishment of an open burn pit registry will help the patients, doctors and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determine to what extent air pollution, caused by open air burn pits, has led to medical diseases among service members. The legislation will also serve as a vehicle for improved communication and information dissemination for affected veterans.

As early as 2002, U.S. military installations in Afghanistan and Iraq began to rely on open-air burn pits to dispose of waste materials. The U.S. Department of Defense and numerous contractors made frequent use of burn pits at a number of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force and the American Lung Association have confirmed the dangers posed by burn pits, and veterans and their families have reached out to Congress for action. The amendment is supported by numerous groups, including Burn Pits 360, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Association of the U.S. Navy, Retired Enlisted Association, the Uniformed Services Disabled Retirees and the National Military Family Association.

Summary of the Open Burn Pits Registry:

  • Establish and maintain an open burn pit registry for those individuals who may have been exposed during their military service;
  • Include information in this registry that the Secretary of the VA determines applicable to possible health effects of this exposure;
  • Develop a public information campaign to inform individuals about the registry; and
  • Periodically notify members of the registry of significant developments associated with burn pit exposure.

The following community sites -- plus Adam Kokesh, Jane Fonda, Pacifica Evening News, The Diane Rehm Show, Chocolate City,  The World Can't Wait and PBS NewsHour -- updated last night and this morning:

The e-mail address for this site is

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