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Senate Votes to Help Vets Poisoned by Military “Burn Pits.” Why No Help for Sick Iraqis & Afghans?

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The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night to expand healthcare and disability benefits to some 3.5 million former U.S. service members poisoned by toxic substances from waste burning pits on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The PACT Act, which now heads to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law, is set to be the biggest expansion of health benefits to veterans in over 30 years but provides no aid to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who continue to bear the brunt of the health and economic impacts of the toxic burn pits. “The campaign for veteran healthcare could have been a joint struggle that included Iraqi [and Afghan] people,” says Purdue University professor Kali Rubaii, who is just back from Fallujah, Iraq, where she was speaking with residents about the impact of the burn pits. She explains how the profit-driven U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan fueled the massive scale of burn pits in the region. We also speak with the Quincy Institute’s Kelley Vlahos, who discusses the congressional lead-up to the bill, which she says put “veterans in the crosshairs.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Senate Republicans reversed themselves again and passed a bill Tuesday night with Democrats to aid U.S. veterans poisoned by toxic waste from U.S. military burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to remove the burden of proof from vets who say their health problems are linked to the Pentagon’s use of these burn pits, expanding healthcare and disability benefits to some three-and-a-half million former U.S. service members exposed to the burning toxic waste.

The legislation passed with a bipartisan vote of 86 to 11, just days after Senate Republicans last week blocked the bill, known as the PACT Act, triggering outrage from military veterans and supporters, who led around-the-clock protests outside the U.S. Capitol demanding action from the Senate. Many vets and their families camped out on the steps of the Capitol since last week’s vote. Comedian Jon Stewart, who’s an outspoken advocate for military veterans, condemned Senate Republicans after they blocked the measure last Thursday.

JON STEWART: So, ain’t this a bitch? Ain’t this a bitch? America’s heroes, who fought in our wars, outside, sweating their asses off, with oxygen, battling all kinds of ailments, while these mother [beep] sit in the air conditioning, walled off from any of it. They don’t have to hear it. They don’t have to see it. They don’t have to understand that these are human beings. Do you get it yet? Do we see that these are — these aren’t heroes; these are men and women, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.

AMY GOODMAN: Comedian Jon Stewart, not being so funny. The bill now heads to President Biden’s desk, who’s expected to quickly sign it into law. Biden has said he believes toxic burn pits may have contributed to the 2015 death of his son Beau Biden, who served in Iraq and was then diagnosed with brain cancer. This is Jon Stewart again, speaking Tuesday alongside veterans after the Senate approved the PACT Act.

JON STEWART: I will say this: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little. And I hope we learn a lesson.

AMY GOODMAN: Exposure from toxic U.S. military burn pits has also led to birth defects and other serious illnesses and disabilities among communities in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are still reeling from the catastrophic aftermath of U.S. occupation. Toxic waste contaminated vast lands, water, and polluted the air.

For more, we’re joined by two guests to discuss the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, which is PACT. Kali Rubaii is an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University whose work focuses on structural violence, anti-colonial feminism, health justice and the ecological impacts of war in the Middle East. She’s just back from Fallujah in Iraq, where she was studying the impact of the burn pits. She’s joining us from West Lafayette, Indiana. And in Washington, D.C., Kelley Vlahos is with us, senior adviser for the Quincy Institute, editorial director at Responsible Statecraft.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kelley Vlahos, let’s begin with you in Washington, D.C., as this bill has just been passed by the Senate, Republicans reversing themselves again. Explain what happened, what led to — well, at the beginning, they supported it, and then, when Manchin reached a deal with Schumer, to the shock of the Republicans, on a totally different bill to do with climate change and taxing corporations, they came out in — what did one newspaper describe it? — a “fit of pique,” and just reversed themselves on this bill.

KELLEY VLAHOS: Well, Senator Pat Toomey had been raising a fuss about this bill for weeks, since it was passed, since it passed the House. His issue was that Democrats were taking a $400 billion package of a piece of money that was going to veterans’ healthcare, and making it discretionary — or, making it mandatory, rather, as opposed to discretionary funding. This would be in addition to the $250 billion that was carved out for this PACT Act, which would also be mandatory funding. Why is that important? It’s important because the funding wouldn’t have to go through the regular appropriations process every year and be debated. And so, their claim was that the Democrats were creating some other slush fund in which $400 billion would be made mandatory. They didn’t like that. They said they had assurances from the Democrats that that would be amended by the time it reached their desk. It hadn’t been. So they kicked up a fuss, led by Senator Pat Toomey, and, as you know, killed the bill, the PACT Act, last week.

Well, as you also mentioned, they were humiliated in the response. I personally thought, “Hey, I’m all for fiduciary responsibility and oversight of funding. There’s plenty of waste, fraud and abuse in this town. But why put veterans in the crosshairs?” And so, they were forced to turn around, accept a — accept the situation as it was, and, as you said, it passed with overwhelming support yesterday.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Kali Rubaii on this issue. My estimate is over the last 60 years, since the early years of the Vietnam War, the United States has been pretty much involved in conflicts or occupations or military war for all but maybe 10 years or so when the U.S. troops were not stationed in these conflicts zones. Could you talk about — therefore, these burn pits have become almost a part of the process of the U.S. military. Could you explain what these burn pits are, why they’re necessary, and what the military has done to protect its soldiers?

KALI RUBAII: Sure. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.

Burn pits are massive incineration fields, sometimes as big as football fields, but, of course, there were many smaller ones throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, as well. They were in operation for over a decade and released high levels of dioxin and all sorts of unknown harmful substances into the air.

They were exceptionally large in Iraq and Afghanistan because this was a war for profit. So, taxpayers funded the U.S. occupation, but the people who were spending that money were private corporations with no-bid contracts, like Halliburton. And that meant that when a computer or a tank had a mechanical problem, it was more profitable to just throw the whole thing away into a burn pit and then sell a brand-new one rather than fix the problem, which leveraged a much higher material cost onto Iraqi bodies and Iraqi land or Afghani bodies and Afghani land. Burn pits are always used to destroy any kind of material that could be used as a multiplier force by an opposing army, so you want to get rid of all of your military goods and information. But in this case, they were incredibly and exponentially toxic because of this no-bid contract relationship that privatized the war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, these pits not only affect the soldiers, but they affect the civilian populations that may be in proximity to them. Could you talk about what’s been reported or documented in terms of the health effects on the civilians near these burn pits?

KALI RUBAII: Sure. Well, veterans saw acute, short-term exposure to burn pits at peak health, at the prime of their lives. Iraqis faced long-term, diffuse exposure at all stages of the life course, so the health effects were varied and widespread. There is epidemiological evidence that living near U.S. bases in Iraq, and therefore near burn pits, increased the likelihood of giving birth to a child with a birth defect or of getting cancer. So, those are some of the most acute, long-term effects.

Burn pits are not the biggest figure of environmental and health harm for Iraqis. They have also been facing military occupation, bombings, shootings, displacement and layers of military incursion by different occupation forces since the U.S. invasion. And these things have all added up to collapse in public infrastructure that would be used to contend with the health effects of burn pits, poor overall health, and then, of course, damaged conditions for farming and fishing.

I’ve been living with and interviewing people who are experiencing these effects. And, of course, the effect on people’s livelihoods is also impactful. I visited Haj Ali, which is a pseudonym for a farmer who lived a mile and a half downwind from the Balad Air Base burn pit, in Yathrib. He had 52 cows that he was taking care of before the Americans occupied in 2003, and now he has just two cows. And that’s because so many in the last decade and a half have died or were born sick, he’s afraid to keep investing in them. And he remembered all different colors of smoke — black, white, red, yellow — producing different kinds of weather above his farm, depending on what was being burned in the burn pits week after week, month after month. And even though the burn pit there has been stopped, it was just last year that he had a calf that was born with no legs. It lived for a few days and then died. He showed me his chickens, who continue to get sick and die. They have trouble growing feathers, trouble walking straight.

And as he was showing me around his farm, some of his neighbors came to complain about neurological problems and reporting brain cancer from having lived near the burn pit. People are now having to rely on personal filters for their water and air in their homes, if they can afford it. When I was living in Fallujah, my tap water was brown. The environmental effects of U.S. occupation are widespread, and people are aware that the environment itself has become a vector for their long-term health issues.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kelley Vlahos, in the PACT Act, can you talk about how the U.S. military first responded to the U.S. soldiers — a lot of denial, a lot of covering up — and whether there is any part of this act that deals with reparations for both Iraqis and people in Afghanistan?

KELLEY VLAHOS: No. No, there’s no reparations for anyone outside of the veterans community, nobody in Afghanistan or Iraq. There are some benefits to family members of veterans who passed away due to service-connected — now service-connected injuries, whether it be cancer or respiratory issues. Those are the two primary injuries that veterans are suffering from today. So there are some benefits to family members.

Most of the benefits in the new PACT Act, which are already up on the VA website, which I thought was incredible — I was searching around last night online, and I found out that the VA already has a whole process set up for veterans to access these new benefits. But it expands the injuries that are now service-connected, considered presumptive service-connected injuries, to 23, which is huge, considering that some 80% of veterans have been thwarted in their attempts to get benefits for their burn pit-connected injuries over the last 10, 15 years. So, anything from cancer-related, respiratory, as well as skin injuries or skin problems and issues are now considered presumptive service-connected injuries. So veterans can access full healthcare now. They can access disability payments, which they weren’t. Also extends the presumptions for Vietnam veterans, who have been fighting — oh my goodness — for my lifetime to get their injuries related to Agent Orange exposure. This is also in the PACT Act.

So, this is monumental on so many levels. You played the comments from Jon Stewart. The one thing that my heart sort of skipped a beat is when he said, “I hope we learn a lesson.” I hoped we had learned a lesson from Vietnam, and we didn’t. We didn’t learn the lesson in Persian Gulf. We have Persian Gulf veterans who are still fighting for the same — for presumption for service-connected benefits for their Persian Gulf illnesses. And so, now we have Iraq and Afghanistan veterans fighting. It seems like this is generational. Just like the wars are generational, the fact that the government hasn’t learned its lesson, hasn’t taken responsibility for the harm that they put these veterans, these service members and their families in, it continues for yet another generation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kelley, that’s precisely the question I wanted to ask you in terms of the comparisons between the fights over Agent Orange and during the Gulf War, the first Gulf War. It was a chronic fatigue syndrome, wasn’t it, that soldiers were complaining about? And there was a — what has happened with the battles around those issues?

KELLEY VLAHOS: They’re still fighting. They’re still fighting. Slowly but surely, they’ve been getting recognition. When I started covering that story in the late — mid- to late 1990s, it was called battle fatigue, Gulf War syndrome. Now it’s called Gulf War illness. They have basically, over time, through many studies, have found that the combination of the environmental conditions, the dust, and the — it wa some of the shots that they had given the soldiers before they went off to battle, and also the insect repellent that they had actually been spraying all of their tents and their bodies with, that combination had created a toxicity in these veterans. And, you know, because it was a combination, because the illnesses and the symptoms were so vague and they were different for different people, ranging from fatigue, headaches, neurological issues, cancers, birth defects in the children of Gulf War veterans, it took this long for it to get any recognition. And that’s the frustrating thing. We can’t point to one illness, one injury. And we see that in the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

And it’s not just veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you look at the PACT Act, it’s covering a lot of vets who were across the Middle East where these burn pits were deployed. And so, we’re talking about a population of 3.5 million veterans who cycled in and out of these wars, tens of thousands of whom had been in and around burn pits. We already have over 250,000, 260,000 veterans who have registered on this burn pit registry that the VA set up a few — several years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to end with Kali Rubaii. Does the PACT Act mean that people are organizing in Iraq and Afghanistan for reparations?

KALI RUBAII: Great question. Yeah, just to add on to what Kelley was saying, it’s certainly not just burn pits. It’s certainly not just Agent Orange. But there is one really great way to avoid war-related injury, which is to not go. War is the singular cause of these diffuse health problems and these health crises. And every war has a different chemical cause, but the practice remains the same.

The U.S. has not done environmental cleanup in a way that’s accessible to those living in Iraq, and certainly not taken responsibility to help people manage long-term health effects of burn pit exposure. While most burn pits are no longer active, they continue to have long-term effects. And the campaign for veteran healthcare could have been a joint struggle that included Iraqi people. Transnational solidarity is a key component to health justice campaigns, and I would like to see the U.S. veteran community reaching out to Iraqi environmental activists and health justice activists who are pushing for not just reparations, but basic repair at this point, managing the health costs of property loss, dismemberment, dispossession, and all of the environmental health effects of warfare in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Kali Rubaii, we want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University, just back from Fallujah, Iraq, and Kelley Vlahos, senior adviser at the Quincy Institute and editorial director of their newsletter, Responsible Statecraft.

Next up, we talk about Kansas becoming the first state to vote on abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Voters overwhelmingly rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment. Stay with us.

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