"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it..."

Burn Pits: The "Agent Orange" of the Iraq War

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"The Soldiers at the Blast Crater Sensed Something Was Wrong..."

August 2008 near Taji, Iraq. They had just exploded a stack of old Iraqi artillery shells buried beside a murky lake. The blast, part of an effort to destroy munitions that could be used in makeshift bombs, uncovered more shells.... Two techs assigned to dispose of munitions stepped into the hole... Lake water seeped in. One of them, Specialist Andrew T. Goldman, noticed a pungent odor, something, he said, he had never smelled before. He lifted a shell. Oily paste oozed from a crack. “That doesn’t look like pond water,” said his team leader, Staff Sgt. Eric J. Duling. Spc. Goldman swabbed the shell with chemical detection paper. It turned red — indicating sulfur mustard, the chemical warfare agent designed to burn a victim’s airway, skin and eyes. All three men recall an awkward pause. Then Sgt. Duling gave an order: “Get the hell out.”





... A foul smell filled the truck and irritated the soldiers’ eyes. Suspecting the shell was the odor’s source, they stopped and heaved it into a deep canal.


The next day Spc. Beasley noticed his pant leg was wet. Mustard exposure symptoms had set in. “I undid my pants,” he said, “and felt the bubble.” His fingers were tracing a seeping blister nearly the size of his hand. His team leader, discovered a similar blister on his own left leg. At first the soldiers were confused. Then, remembering the odorous shell. If that was mustard, he thought, and was burning their skin, what might be happening in their lungs?

The patrol sped to an Army clinic at Camp Taji.


In 2007, with blast and gunshot wounds the predominant causes of casualties, the doctors were not ready. The staff rinsed the soldiers’ eyes, put cream on Specialist Beasley’s blister, and turned them away. “I don’t know how to describe it, except to say: confusion,” ...

“They really didn’t know what to do. The general feel was a whole lot of people shrugging their shoulders nonstop.”


The soldiers returned to Balad Air Base, where they were stationed, and visited another clinic. A doctor ordered treatment with painkillers, antibiotics, burn cream and cleaning of the blisters — a sensation, the former sergeant said, “like a having a wire dog brush being rubbed across your leg.” Spc. Beasley’s medical record shows that blood and urine specimens confirmed the mustard agent exposure. But the patients were not admitted to a hospital.