Sick soldiers point finger at US contractor

US soldiers have launched a lawsuit against a firm whose parent company was once headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney, on the grounds that it provided US troops in Iraq with unsafe water, rotten food and that it exposed them to toxic waste.


“I estimate that 90% of the soldiers in my unit came to see me at least once or twice with respiratory difficulties,” says Sgt. Dennis Gogel, a medic who served in Iraq from May 2005 to May 2006.


This 29-year-old US soldier served with the Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar battery at Balad base, a windswept US base north of Baghdad, known for its intense heat.


Today, Gogel has joined Joshua Eller, a US computer technician and former soldier, who decided to take legal action in November 2008 against the two main Pentagon contractors, KBR and its former parent company Halliburton, a company once headed by US Vice-President Dick Cheney. In the complaint filed in Texas, they accuse the two companies of contaminating the air and providing unsafe water and rotten food to US soldiers at Balad air base – the largest US base in Iraq.


Both say they and others suffered from what people called “Iraqi crud”, a mix of respiratory and gastric ailments that they first attributed to a change of environment and weather. Today, they say they are sick due to contamination KBR could have avoided. “This company is being paid millions and millions. They are doing sub-par work and putting the lives of US soldiers in danger,” says Eller.


According to army figures quoted by Defense Industry Daily, KBR received a total $15.4 billion in Iraq, for feeding, housing and providing fuel to US troops during its five-year contract with the Pentagon signed in 2001. Amid criticism that KBR had overcharged the US for its work in Iraq, the full contract was not renewed in 2006. They still however run services at Balad air base.


Toxic waste



“At the time, we wouldn’t think much of it; we were more worried about the mortars hitting us,” says Gogel of his stay at a camp nicknamed “Mortaritaville” because of the frequency of mortar attacks. He says he used to treat the symptoms of “Iraqi crud” without looking further. “We were trained to think it was something not to worry about,” he says.


Gogel himself says he suffered from poor appetite, constant diarrhea and was diagnosed with thickening of the intestine walls at the base clinic. During his one-year stay at Balad, he lost 60 pounds, dropping from 190 pounds to 130 pounds.


A burn pit at Balad air base shot from housing facilities. Photo by Joshua Eller.


“Specialists couldn’t say what was wrong with me,” said Gogel, “but before my time in Iraq, I had never suffered from any medical problems.”


Eller says he was sick at Balad, suffered from frequent vomiting, cramps and diarrhea – ailments he still has today. During his deployment in Iraq, Eller also suffered from chronic blistering of the feet, which sometimes prevented him from walking properly.


Eller and Gogel are not the only nationals to complain about living conditions at Balad base. Army Times journalist Kelly Kennedy says that her publication received more than 100 letters from sick soldiers after she published a story about hazardous waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Soldiers wrote to complain of asthma, sleep apnea, chronic bronchitis, migraine headaches, coughs, and slower running times for their physical fitness tests. A majority of the service members were based at Balad air base. “We've also heard from several soldiers who said they were diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma while in Balad or soon after,” she added.


The lawsuit against KBR could become a class action if other soldiers decide to sue the military contractor along with Eller and Gogel.


Wild dogs roving on burning pits



“As soon as I got out of the plane at Balad air field, I smelt the smoke. I’m used to war zones so I didn’t think much of it at first,” said Gogel. “It was only after two or three days that I saw the incinerator pit. It was smoking constantly.”


According to Eller’s complaint, KBR dug an open air burn pit at Balad and burned hazardous medical waste from a camp hospital in open air close to the lodgings of US soldiers. “The pit was less than half a mile from my lodging and even closer to the hospital,” said Gogel.


One of the pits in Balad air base. Photo by Joshua Eller.


“The incinerator was out of order for seven months during my time at the base,” says Eller. “Everything was burnt in the pits.” Eller also says human remains were dumped in the pit. “I remember seeing a wild dog running around with a forearm in his mouth.” According to two surgeons contacted by the Army Times, the contractors were in charge of maintaining the incinerator on site.


In an interview with FRANCE 24, KBR press officer Heather Browne said her company refused to comment on the case, before adding that KBR was not responsible for “managing the disposal system at Camp Balad.”


Contaminated water and food



Since their return from war-torn Iraq, US service members have been worrying about a less visible danger, contamination in food and water. According to their complaint, KBR also supplied US forces with food that was expired, spoiled, or rotten.


Unsafe water in Iraq has caused quite a stir in the US. Democrat Senator Byron Dorgan has been investigating KBR practices for years now. He pressed the government to review allegations that the company supplied unsafe water to US troops in Iraq. Published in March 2008, the Department of Defense Inspector General audit revealed that KBR “failed to perform quality control testing” and “exposed US forces to unmonitored and potentially unsafe water.”

KBR has roundly rejected the accusations, saying that they met all military standards of water production and treatment.

Balad air base in Iraq. Photo by Joshua Eller.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app