The Pits of Hell

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

This week’s NATO summit on the future of the war in Afghanistan probably did not get to the matter of burn pits or abandoned latrines.

These are the details of hell. They are also our legacy, in Afghanistan, in Iraq . . . wherever we employ our military to pursue our geopolitical self-interest. Strip away the propaganda, strip away the politics and the pursuit of strategic advantage, and what American/NATO policy amounts to is burned, buried, dumped and abandoned waste, some of it radioactive, most of it toxic.

“My nephew went in the military healthy,” wrote a woman named Patsy on the website Burn Pits Action Center. This is one story out of hundreds that are now surfacing, about American vets poisoned by American war waste that was discharged into the environment of the countries we occupy with no regard for international law or, my God, sanity.

A month after he got out, she wrote — after three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan — he went on a vacation with his family to Disneyland. He couldn’t finish this mission. He had to leave early because he had what turned out to be a “small stroke.” This was followed by seizures, trouble breathing, more small strokes, blood clots. He now has stomach cancer and it may have spread.

“He is still fighting to get disability from the military. All this happened within a year of getting out of the military. His marriage is under much strain and falling apart. He can’t work. He asked his mom, what do I do with the rest of my life now? He is 34 years old. His mom cried for days. . . .

“She was so proud that her son was fighting for our country, never suspecting that our country was killing him.”

The likelihood is that he was exposed to the smoke emanating from burn pits. Most U.S. bases in Afghanistan, and until recently in Iraq, operate a burn pit 24/7. Everything no longer needed in the war effort is consumed in such pits. This includes medical waste, ammunition, amputated body parts, feces, paints and solvents, electronic equipment, old tires, plastics, lithium batteries, whole vehicles, jet fuel — and just about everything else under the sun, possbily including military equipment containing radioactive material.

“The American military will likely insist that it strictly controls the disposal of radioactive waste, but such assertions are not credible,” former U.S. Air Force Captain Matthew J. Nasuti wrote two years ago in an article published by the Kabul Press. “While there are strict regulations, the time and cost of complying with them in a war zone are such that base commanders in Afghanistan most likely ignored them, opting instead for throwing the waste into burn pits.”

While the Pentagon has continually denied there’s any evidence linking the burn pits with health problems, the website Danger Room recently obtained a 2011 Army memo stating that the pit at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan may cause “long-term adverse health conditions” for the troops there, increasing their risk of “reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases.”

Many other conditions have been blamed on the burn pits, from skin rashes, headaches and diarrhea to leukemia, ALS and cancer. The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) recently ran a story about Danielle Nienajadlo, an Iraq vet who died three years ago of leukemia. She’d been stationed at Joint Base Balad, where she started coughing up “mixtures of blood and black phlegm” after exposure to the thick, black smoke of the burn pit at the base.

“She would call her mom and complain of sores and bruises across her body. She told her sister that she had splitting headaches and that she was losing weight.

“She sent alarming photos home and her family pleaded with her to cut through the red tape and get medical attention.

“Her reports to superiors were met with accusations of laziness.”

Not surprisingly, there’s far more information available about the health effects of burn pits on American troops than on the local populations. But Nasuti’s articles for the Kabul Press go into excruciating detail about the U.S. military’s environmental irresponsibility in Afghanistan, where since 2001 it has “generated millions of kilograms of hazardous, toxic and radioactive wastes,” virtually all of which “appears to have been buried, burned or secretly disposed of into the air, soil, groundwater and surface waters of Afghanistan.”

The waste even includes abandoned latrines, often dug near groundwater or uphill from surface water. “After a latrine pit is filled, it is apparently covered over with dirt and forgotten” — in defiance of the sort of restrictions on waste disposal in, say, the United States.

And the toxic pollution of waste disposal is only part of the hellish environmental consequences we’re creating for the future. From the radioactive fallout spread by depleted uranium munitions to the destruction of the “compression-fragile” desert floor, we are pursuing a geopolitical strategy with single-minded, and ultimately suicidal, indifference to the consequences of our actions. And nothing can stop us except our own awakened consciences.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at