By Naureen Shah, director of Security with Human Rights
Cindy Aman used to run every day. Zip lining, rappelling, full court basketball, weight-lifting: These all came naturally to her. That was until she deployed, in 2003.
At military bases in Kuwait and Iraq, she was exposed to smoke from the burn pits: open air pits where plastics, body parts, chemicals, unexploded ordnance and nuclear and biological waste and other material were burned.
“The air felt thick and would burn my throat really bad,” she wrote me in an email, describing what it was like to serve at military sites where burn pits operated. She continued:
“It was extremely common for us to have black ‘stuff’ coming out of our noses when we blew them or having nosebleeds. We would make jokes about it, but now I realize that it wasn’t normal.
“While I was there I had a horrible respiratory infection … I remember just being so sick and coughing until it hurt too much to swallow…no matter what antibiotics, breathing treatments, or other treatments they tried there was nothing that would help.”
Cindy came back sick, and over time she got sicker. “Now I can’t even walk up a flight of stairs without getting very short of breath,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like someone is squeezing my airway shut, like I am suffocating.”
A biopsy in 2014 showed she had dust and metal particles in her lung cells. She was eventually diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare disease for which there is no cure.
“I had to decide not to be angry,” she said. “Instead of giving up I started listening to and reading about the thousands of other veterans who are suffering from respiratory conditions and many other debilitating illnesses that are destroying not only their lives, but also the lives of their families.”
More than 90,000 veterans have registered with the U.S. government as suffering from toxic exposures related to the burn pits. Many veterans returned home with devastating health conditions, including neurological disorders, rare forms of cancer, reduced lung function and pulmonary diseases. Some veterans have been unable to get adequate medical treatment because the health impacts of the burn pits are not widely understood, and much remains unknown.
“I have been contacted by many veterans who are suffering immensely and have no idea where to go to find out what is going on with them,” Cindy wrote. She now volunteers with the grassroots organization Burn Pits 360, based in Texas, which is trying to bring more attention to the issue.
Thousands of Iraqi and Afghan families that lived near U.S. military sites were also impacted by the burn pits and other environmental contamination. Many have suffered lasting damage, reportedly including birth defects and neurological disorders. Researchers are still working to get information from the U.S. government that they need to identify the full health impacts.
“Pollution all ends up in the body,” toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani recently told The Guardian. Her research shows that in 2010, the rate of babies born with birth defects in a Basra hospital was as high as 30 percent. “People were breathing in high levels. Major damage was being done to people.”
Despite the thousands of people whose health has been devastated, this issue is hardly talked about in mainstream media. But researchers, doctors, veterans and their families are trying to change that.
Today, Cindy joined more than 700 veterans and their families in writing an open letter to President Obama seeking his help in getting healthcare and an end to secrecy about the operations of the burn pits.
“Many of us went to war able to run marathons, but now our health has deteriorated so much that we cannot hold down steady jobs,” the letter reads. “We are misdiagnosed. We are not receiving the medical care we urgently need.”
Why isn’t more being done? One reason is that the science linking burn pit emissions to alarming rates of cancer and other diseases is not conclusive, and because of poor air sampling practices, it may never be definitive.
But in the meantime, many people are seriously ill, dying or have passed away. They deserve the full truth about why they were exposed to the burn pits, despite early reports of the illnesses among service members. And they deserve healthcare.
“Most [veterans] become too sick and weak to keep fighting…in some cases [they] end up committing suicide because they are so desperate to end their suffering,“ Cindy wrote.
“There is such a need for the leaders of this country to pay attention and realize that the war really did follow us home and those that were willing to sacrifice their lives for this country are now suffering.”
We may never know the total number of Iraqis, Afghans and Americans who are suffering serious illnesses due to exposure to the burn pits and other environmental harms.
But one person’s story is enough to know: This never should have happened.
Read the letter to President Obama organized by Burn Pits 360.