Tammy McCracken said her husband was fit and lean before he deployed to Iraq, a weightlifter and a runner with no history of serious illnesses.
But David returned home from Baghdad in 2009 with a persistent dry cough. Headaches came next. Then confusion, disorientation and memory loss. On the day he learned of his promotion to colonel in 2011, his doctors in Atlanta performed a biopsy and found a brain tumor. It would kill him in less than a year. He died at 46, leaving behind three children.
Tammy is certain of what caused his cancer — the vast open-air burn pits the U.S. military used to eliminate all kinds of waste in Iraq. Everything went in them: unexploded ordnance, metal cans, plastics, Styrofoam, rubber, paint, lubricants, even body parts and animal carcasses. Ignited with jet fuel, the pits belched heavy smoke into the same air the soldiers breathed around their bases.
More than 170,000 troops and veterans who spent time in Iraq and elsewhere have added their names to a national government registry that tracks exposure to burn pits, oil well fires and other airborne hazards. As of Dec. 31, 7,255 Georgians were on the list. A nonprofit advocacy group that tracks the issue, Burn Pits 360, says it has tracked 130 deaths tied to burn pit exposure.
The Veterans Affairs Department has rejected most disability compensation claims to date. It points to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report that says insufficient data makes it impossible to conclude whether burn pit emissions could cause long-term health problems. But the VA says it continues to study the issue.
Several bills focusing on the issue are pending in Congress. Among them are measures that also would allow families of deceased veterans to participate in the government’s airborne hazards registry and require the VA to create evaluation criteria for disability benefits for an illness often linked to burn pits, obliterative bronchiolitis. Meanwhile, Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is planning to hold a hearing on exposures to burn pits and other toxic hazards next month.
Former Vice President Joseph Biden brought more attention to the issue last year, when he speculated whether his 46-year-old son’s death from brain cancer was linked to burn pits. In 2009, Beau Biden deployed to Camp Victory in Iraq — the same base where David McCracken was stationed — before dying in 2015 from the same brain cancer that killed McCracken, glioblastoma multiforme.
Tammy McCracken’s experience inspired her to volunteer with Burn Pits 360 and to enroll in a graduate analytics program at Georgia Tech. She hopes to use what she has learned and publish the locations of the military’s burn pits. She also wants to help other families get the same VA indemnity compensation and education benefits her family received after nearly four years of appealing to the agency to link her husband’s death to his military service.
“Why do we have to wait for symptoms to arise?” she said. “Why do we have to wait for a doctor to tell a family your husband has stage 4 cancer. It doesn’t have to happen this way.”
The 10-acre burn pit
To incinerate the many tons of waste created each day on bases in Afghanistan, Iraq and on the Horn of Africa, the U.S. military set up scores of open-air burn pits.
Approved by the Pentagon, they were supposed to be temporary until trash incinerators could be installed, but some remained in operation up until as recently as 2015, according to Joseph Hickman’s exposé, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.” Many soldiers were “housed as close as a few hundred yards away from the burn pits, and in some cases recreational halls and other base facilities were built nearly adjacent to the toxic pyres,” wrote Hickman, a former Marine and Army sergeant.
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The pit that drew the most attention burned north of Baghdad at Joint Base Balad, home at one point to about 25,000 troops and civilians. The pit stretched across 10 acres, incinerated several hundred tons of waste each day and sent smoke over the base’s living areas, VA records show. Military air tests there revealed dioxin, a compound linked to some cancers. Agent Orange, the herbicide the U.S. military sprayed during the Vietnam War, also contained a form of dioxin.
The Defense Department said it is “concerned that toxins from burn pit emissions may pose health risks” and that the pits are generally meant to be short-term.
“For the longer term,” Defense Department spokeswoman Heather Babb said, “we use incinerators, engineered landfills or other accepted solid waste management practices. When used, open-air burn pits must be operated in a manner that prevents or minimizes risks to human health and safety of DOD personnel.”
Michael Keister mapped the locations of more than a dozen burn pits in Iraq while working with Tammy McCracken for a Georgia-based military contractor about nine years ago. He remembers wearing a bandana over his mouth and nose and goggles to protect himself from the acrid smoke.
“No one would ever get away with this in any county in the United States,” said Keister, a Vietnam War veteran who has suffered from diabetes connected to Agent Orange exposure. “It appeared they didn’t give a hoot about anybody over there, including our own soldiers and Marines.”
Kris Marbutt of McDonough said her 34-year-old husband, Sgt. John Marbutt, died from brain cancer — glioblastoma multiforme — in 2016 after being exposed to burn pits during his deployment to Mosul, Iraq, in 2009 and 2010. She remembers him telling her how thick the air was in Iraq and how he later suffered from two brain tumors, headaches, dizziness and numbness.
“He served our country with dignity,” she said. “And he did not deserve to suffer and die like he did.”
Dozens of veterans, civilian contractors and their families sued the military contractors who were responsible for managing the burn pits, including KBR, alleging they were harmed by the smoke coming from them. But in December, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their appeal, leaving in place a lower court decision that blocked the lawsuits from moving forward.
The VA says it is pursuing a new review focusing on respiratory health.
“We continually look at the research and follow trends since some diseases, such as a cancer, have a long latency period,” VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said in an email. “At this time, science does not support making burn pit exposure a presumptive condition for any illness.”
Still, the agency has approved some disability compensation claims that had at least one condition related to burn pit exposure. From June of 2007 through March of this year, the VA processed 12,378 of them. Of those, 2,425 — or a fifth — had at least one burn pit condition granted, according to the VA.
His final words
David McCracken grew up in New Castle, Penn., the son of a Korean War veteran and a homemaker. An industrial hygienist, he was sharp, he thrived in school and he loved the military, according to his widow, Tammy. She got one of his favorite expressions, Embrace every moment, tattooed on her right wrist after he died.
In her tidy home in Tyrone, she is surrounded by things that remind her of him: The silver sword she presented him the day he was promoted to colonel, his plentiful challenge coin collection, his mint green camouflage Army caps, and the American flag that draped his casket.
The day he died, she said, he shared some vanilla ice cream — his favorite flavor — with her and their three children in the hospice wing of the Atlanta hospital that cared for him. He asked Tammy if he did a good job as a husband and father. Absolutely, she told him, you did a fantastic job. Those were the final words they shared.
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