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

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



Staff Sgt. James F. Burns, a team leader in the 752nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, looked into a crater... It was an unusual device. A short while before, it had been detonated beside an American patrol in southwest Baghdad. The blast had been small. No one had been wounded.

Two EOD techs, Sgt. Burns and  Pfc. Michael S. Yandell, manipulated a robot toward the device to examine it via video feed. They expected to find a high-explosive shell. The video showed a damaged shell rigged to a telephone cable. It was May 2004. Weeks before, Sergeant Burns had found a similar bomb made with an illumination shell — a pyrotechnic round that lacked explosive power. It, too, had been rigged with an identical telephone cable. This shell, the sergeant thought, was a duplicate. To prevent militants from reusing materials, disposal teams often destroyed any warheads and shells they found on the spot. But snipers stalked this area. Sgt. Burns understood that risks grew the longer the soldiers remained. He decided he would destroy the shell near their base.

Private Yandell carried the shell to their truck bed.

The drive back Sgt. Burns noticed a bitter smell and thought, he said later, that “it was rotten vegetables.”... Then he felt the onset of a headache. He told Private Yandell, who was driving, that he did not feel right.... Nauseated and disoriented, Private Yandell had quietly been struggling to drive. His vision was blurring. His head pounded. “I feel like crap, too,” he replied.

Neither man remembers the drive’s last minutes. As they arrived at their building, Sergeant Burns was sure. In the back of the truck, the shell had leaked liquid. Illumination rounds, he knew, do not do that.

Disposal teams kept bleach for decontamination. "Pinpointed pupils,” Pfc. Yandell later recalled. “And that is like the classic sign of sarin exposure.”

The canisters had ruptured during the roadside bomb’s detonation, mixing precursors to create sarin with a purity of 43 percent — more than enough to be lethal. Pfc. Yandell had handled the shell without gloves. Both men inhaled sarin vapors.