"I didn't know much about the burn pits while I was at Balad, but I certainly could see the fumes and taste the toxic air," says Bob, age 52. "And we had dust storms. They weren't like a windy day here; it was a 24-hour event. It was always hazy, so bad at times that you could hardly see and so hot you could barely think straight—sometimes it was 120 degrees in the shade.
"We worked 12 hours a day seven days a week so we didn't have much time to think about it. But a day didn't go by that I couldn't smell the open pits burning and I took pictures of black smoke floating through the air.
"As far as I know, after innumerable studies, there is still no hard evidence, no proof that the burn pit chemicals from this air went right into our lungs. But how else can anyone explain all the respiratory issues we had, and still have? Hell, some guys have died from open burn pits.
"Us veterans, both living and dead, are evidence enough!"
Bob was diagnosed with bronchitis at the Balad air base hospital. More worrisome, while he was at Balad, Bob says he had pus coming out of his toenails. He came home with a staph infection in his face and now has medical reports "two inches thick." But he was one of the lucky ones—so far. Bob was able to get powerful antibiotics (that he took for six months) in the nick of time. Bob's doctor said if the infection settled in his brain, it could kill him. His friend wasn't so lucky.
"My buddy—who was deployed to Balad at the same time as me—contracted Lou Gehrig's disease when he came home and he passed away last month at the age of 49," says Bob. Lou Gehrig's Disease, or ALS, typically affects men older than 55, and only about 1-2 people per 100,000. But half of the Desert Storm veterans who were diagnosed with ALS were younger than 25.
More than 37 metals have been found in dust particles emitted from the open pit burns at Balad, which comes as no surprise. Everything from microwaves to SUVs were burned to dust. Some metals, such as lead and aluminum, which were found in the dust particles, have been linked to neurological problems. "We know that aluminum has been associated with ALS, as well as lead," said Ronnie Horner, chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Cincinnati, in an interview with USA Today (May 2011).
According to the USA Today report, the military has seen a 251 percent increase in the rate of neurological disorders per 10,000 active-duty service members, a 47 percent rise in the rate of respiratory issues and a 34 percent increase in the rate of cardiovascular disease since the wars began in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2001.
As well as metals, researchers found that the dust contains 147 different kinds of bacteria, and fungi that could spread disease. Could that account for Bob's toe complaint?
For Bob, it is unfathomable that, given these facts, the Defense Department has found the dust "not noticeably different from samples collected in the Sahara Desert and desert regions in the U.S. and China." But were items such as electronics, doused with jet fuel, burnt in these other regions? In the US?
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"I can't understand what these reports are trying to hide," says Bob. "I have been under medical care for two years with neurological problems, and there are scores of us suffering with so many medical issues. When I went to Iraq I was good to go. Now I am always exhausted, and I developed sleep apnea. None of the medical staff at Balad could explain why pus was coming out of my toenails but my suspicion is that I was poisoned.
"Every doctor I've spoken with says it is likely I was poisoned. I have spoken with an attorney but they need proof. I am, however, added to an open pit burn class-action lawsuit. I just hope something happens with litigation before I get sicker."