War's toxic legacy: Iraq, the burn pits & the tragedy the military needs to be held accountable for

All day long Brian was exposed to the open-air, toxic burn pits that smoldered in Iraq. This is his nightmare story

Published February 21, 2016 3:30PM (EST)

Joseph Hickman   (Skyhorse Publishing)
Joseph Hickman (Skyhorse Publishing)

Excerpted from "The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers"

From November 2003 to April 2009, in a lonely area of the Iraqi desert approximately twenty miles north of Baghdad, the United States operated a military base called Camp Taji. The camp was located in what is known as the Sunni Triangle, which in the early days of the Iraq War was one of the most battle-torn areas in the country.

In June 2004, Army Specialist Brian Thornhill was deployed to Camp Taji for a one-year tour of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Brian was twenty-two years old when he left for Iraq. He was born and raised in the small town of Snyder, Texas. He came from a tight-knit Christian family. His parents were hardworking Americans; his father was a sheet metal worker at a local factory and his mother a part-time clerk at a local dollar store. He had two younger sisters, Emily and Amber, and a younger brother, Steven.

Brian was a good-looking young man; cheerful, friendly, and quick with jokes, but serious when he needed to be. He had blond hair and blue eyes, stood six feet tall, and weighed in at a muscular one hundred and ninety pounds.

Like so many other young men and women his age, the events of 9/11 affected him deeply. Shortly after the attacks, Brian made the decision to serve his country and joined the U.S. Army. He had been working part-time as an assistant coach for his local high school football team, and he thought the Army would provide him with opportunities as well as a personal sense of pride he would feel for serving his country. He figured that if he could stretch his enlistment to last for four years, he could save enough money, supplemented by GI Bill benefits, to pay for a bachelor’s degree. With the education he received courtesy of the Army, he hoped he could get a well-paying job and would be able to marry his high school sweetheart, Lisa.

Brian enlisted on October 12, 2003, and was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training and infantry training school. After twelve weeks of combat training, he was stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. Shortly after arriving at Fort Gordon, his unit received orders to ship out for Iraq. Brian’s infantry unit arrived at Camp Taji in the unbearable heat of the Iraqi summer and he soon learned that for the next year he would be working as a guard in one of the many tower posts that ringed the perimeter of the base. Camp Taji was often attacked by Iraqi insurgents and rebels with small arms fire and mortars. Brian’s responsibility was to continuously monitor a sector of the outer perimeter of the base from his tower, visually scanning his area with binoculars and reporting anything that looked suspicious.

Nearly every minute of every day that Brian spent at Camp Taji was accounted for, and he had very little free time for himself. Every day he woke at 5:00 a.m. and got dressed for duty. He carried a fully loaded M-4 assault rifle and he wore a camouflaged Army combat uniform, a Kevlar helmet, and a Kevlar-plated vest that was stuffed with a first aid kit and five ammunition pouches holding one hundred and fifty additional rounds of ammunition already loaded in magazines. The combined weight of all this gear added an additional sixty pounds to his head and chest. After strapping on his gear, he reported for duty by 6:00 a.m. sharp, taking his position in the guard tower, where he would continue standing for twelve monotonous hours in the unforgiving Iraqi heat. It was stifling inside his guard post. The tower was made of wood and stood about fifty feet high. The perch at the top was surrounded by walls four feet high—just big enough to capture the desert heat inside the tower and obstruct air circulation. By seven in the morning on most days, the temperature outside was already a hundred degrees. The weight of Brian’s gear only added to the misery he already felt from the unbearable heat, and he seemed to sweat from every pore in his body. The swath of desert terrain he stared at each day was flat and dry, broken up by patches of high brush, as well as the occasional wilting tree. Day after day, for an entire year, he watched over the same boring landscape.

Even though the base had been attacked several times by Iraqi insurgents, his particular sector had never come under fire. That fact only made it more difficult for Brian to remain vigilant in his job. He knew his duty was important, but the days were endless and miserable. He sometimes found his mind drifting. Alone in the tower, it was hard to stay focused; he would catch himself daydreaming about his hometown, his girlfriend, or his high school days when he played football and ran track.

Brian knew that, just as sure as the day would bring boredom and heat, it would also bring a suffocating cloud of black smoke and white ash that would invade his tower. He had a good aerial view of the camp interior from up in his tower. About a half a mile away, he could see the flames dancing from the open-air pit where the base disposed of its trash. The inferno would roar to life each morning around 9:30. Thick, dark plumes would begin drifting toward him and then white ashes would float down from above, blanketing the ground like a Wisconsin snowfall. Inevitably, the smoke and ash would come swirling into his tower. His eyes and throat would burn first; then the sharp, chemical smell would make his stomach turn. He would choke and cough and eventually begin dry heaving from the smoke, all the while trying to catch his breath. The white ash would cover him from helmet to boots, and would carpet the floor of the tower. About thirty minutes after that, his head would begin to ache, a dull pain that built quickly, as if a little man were inside it chiseling away at his skull. But there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He had to remain at his post, squinting through his binoculars, doing his best to see through the haze created by the smoke and ash, ensuring that his sector remained secure.

The smoke and ash that invaded his tower followed him home each night when he was finally done with his shift. It filled the air when he walked to the chow hall or the PX or his living quarters. He always tried to get indoors as quickly as he could, to alleviate the burning in his eyes and throat, but more often than not the cruddy air would follow him inside, flowing through open doors and into air conditioning systems. Sometimes, soldiers covered up their air conditioners with towels at night, to block the smell and soot, and by the morning the towels would be black with the stuff.

One day Brian saw his commanding officer on his way to the chow hall, with the smoke and ash falling from the sky as usual. Brian had been having a lot of nasal congestion and seemed to be getting colds all the time, something he had rarely dealt with as an adult. He worked up his nerve to approach his CO, asking him about the constant fallout from the burn pits and if it was dangerous. His commander assured him that while the air pollution was annoying, it was not harmful. Brian accepted his CO’s answer—what other choice did he have? It was not a good idea for a low-ranking enlisted soldier like Brian to question the wisdom of his commander.

The one-year tour felt like five years to Brian. War was not like the movies or television, at least not for him. Guts and glory were replaced with three hundred and sixty-five monotonous days in a place where his worst enemy was not a terrorist but the rancid smoke and ash that bedeviled his days and nights.

After finally completing his time in Iraq, Brian returned to Fort Gordon in Georgia on June 29, 2005. He was thankful to be back in the States in one piece. But his health was worrisome. Though he was uninjured and whole, he was still plagued with nasal congestion and cold symptoms. Soon after coming back, his military contract came up for renewal. The Army asked Brian to reenlist, but he respectfully declined. All he wanted to do was go back to his hometown and start a new life with Lisa.

On July 17, 2005, his enlistment was officially over. He boarded a Greyhound bus in Augusta and arrived back home in Snyder, Texas. Lisa and his family were waiting for him at the bus station. They celebrated his return by taking him out to dinner. The next day, he and Lisa flew to Disneyland for a one-week vacation. It was the best time he had in his life. They walked through the “happiest place on earth” handin-hand, unwilling to leave each other’s side for a minute. They talked endlessly about their future together and how they never wanted to be apart again.

When they returned home from their vacation, Brian applied for a job at the local grocery store and was hired. He also enrolled part-time at the local community college. Lisa was working at a local bank as a teller. They were madly in love and saw each other every chance they could. In June 2006, they were married and they rented a house right outside of town. Life could not have been better for Brian and Lisa at that point. Brian felt like he was living the American dream. He had so many plans for himself, his wife, and their future.

Though his life was great in many ways, his chronic health problems had started to become an annoyance. The nagging nasal congestion and other cold-like symptoms that began in Iraq would not go away and he began to notice other areas of his health change as well. He had been a very active person prior to his time in the Army. But after returning home, he noticed that whenever he went for a run—something that he routinely did in the past—he would experience shortness of breath and he was not nearly as fast as he was before he was deployed.

By September 2006, three months after Brian and Lisa were married, his symptoms were no longer simply a minor annoyance. The nasal congestion was constant now and he felt short of breath throughout the day, not just when he exercised. His breathing difficulty became so severe that it began to affect his work performance. He often had to pause and take short breaks to catch his breath while he was unloading trucks of produce or stocking shelves in the store. He decided it was time to see his family doctor and get himself checked out. The doctor told him he had a severe sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics to take care of it.

But after the two-week round of antibiotics, Brian’s symptoms remained unchanged. In fact, they seemed to be getting worse. He could not even go outside and walk to the end of his driveway to get his mail without feeling short-winded. He also started noticing a slight, constant, uncontrollable shake in his hands.

Brian decided to go back to his family doctor. After examining him this time, Brian’s physician said he was concerned and he wanted some tests done right away, scheduling him for a workup at a Dallas hospital, 260 miles away, for 9:00 a.m. the following day. After making the long drive with Lisa, Brian underwent a battery of tests that lasted through most of the day. The doctors told him they would have the test results back in about a week and they would forward them to his family doctor. Despite their exhaustion from the trip, Brian and Lisa didn’t manage to sleep much that night or the rest of the week. They were too worried about what the tests would reveal.

When the test results finally came in, Brian’s family doctor called him to his office. He told Brian he had a type of autoimmune disorder. The doctor explained to him that the antibodies his body produces, which normally fight off viruses and infections, were for some reason attacking the healthy cells and tissue in his body. Brian’s doctor had consulted with several other physicians regarding the test results, but none of them could explain why this was happening. Nevertheless, the doctor decided to move forward with treatment by prescribing Brian several different types of medications in an effort to prevent his body from destroying itself. Brian was scared and could not believe what was happening to him. He felt helpless; he was dependent upon doctors, people he barely knew, to come up with a way to heal him.

By November 2006, about a month after being diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder, Brian was too sick to work and had to quit his job. He simply did not have the strength to perform even light physical duties any longer. He decided he was going to file a medical claim with the Veterans Health Administration, which runs the largest health-care network in the country, including 150 VA hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics, serving more than nine million of the nation’s twenty-two million veterans. Brian made an appointment at the VA Hospital in Dallas. He explained to the doctors there that his symptoms started when he was in Iraq and he thought they were caused by the air pollution from the burn pits to which he was constantly exposed. The VA staff took down his claim, conducted its own tests, and informed him that it could take a year or longer to render a decision.

At this point, money was becoming an issue for Brian and Lisa. With Brian unable to work, their household budget was tight, so Lisa took on an extra job as a waitress at a local restaurant.

As the weeks went by, Brian’s health began to spiral downward even further. In January 2007, Brian developed tumors on his chest and under his arm and they needed to be removed. He started having debilitating pains in his stomach and hips. With Lisa working two jobs, Brian found himself at home alone most of the time, unable to get up and walk into another room without pain or difficulty breathing. His deteriorating health began to take a toll on his emotional well-being. He was short-tempered and agitated. He slid into a deep depression and started to take his frustration and pain out on Lisa. He criticized her constantly for not cleaning the house, for not being sympathetic enough, or for not being around to take care of him. He was given antidepressants but they didn’t work. His failing health took over his whole life.

In July 2007, just six months after the first tumors were discovered, he developed a tumor the size of a football on his left hip that needed to be surgically removed. That procedure left him unable to walk for months.

In January 2008, he finally received the letter from the VA that he had been expecting for over a year, the official response to his disability claim. As he tore open the letter and read it, Brian was stunned. His claim was denied: the VA had determined that his illness was not caused by his military service.

Brian was infuriated and his anger and frustration boiled over. He soon became impossible to live with and Lisa left him. She loved him but she could no longer withstand the verbal abuse and the burden of taking care of him and working two jobs. She moved into an apartment in town, avoiding his phone calls or any contact with him. It was hard for her; she remembered the man he used to be. It hurt her to see what he had become.

Penniless and heartbroken, Brian moved back in with his parents and stayed in the bedroom he had as a child. He was extremely depressed and spent most of his time in bed, weeping. In September 2008, Brian was hit with another devastating blow. He was diagnosed with brain cancer. His mother took him for radiation treatments and chemotherapy daily. He lost his hair and a lot of weight. He was violently sick from the treatment and so weak he didn’t leave his bed anymore at all.

At night, through his bedroom door, Brian could hear the muffled sounds of his mother weeping in the living room and his father doing his best to console her. He felt guilty for how much sadness and stress he had caused for all those around him. When he finally fell asleep at night, he would often dream he was healthy again, that Lisa was with him, they were in their home, happy and in love. In his dreams he was active, working, and going to college. When he woke up, reality slapped him in the face. He was sick and weak and in pain. He was alone and helpless. Brian wanted to die and was angry with himself for not having the courage to take his own life. He wanted death to come soon and take him. The same way the smoke and ash would enshroud him in the tower at Camp Taji.

Brian died on January 29, 2014, in his bed at home. The official cause of death was brain cancer.

* At the request of “Brian Thornhill’s” family, I have used a pseudonym instead of the late soldier’s real name.

Excerpted from "The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers" by Joseph Hickman. Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Hickman. Published by permission of Skyhorse Publishing/Hot Books.

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