The Intoxicating Stench
You may be asking yourself “What is the intoxicating stench?” Well the answer is simple.…
When we landed in Balad AFB, Iraq the sky was filled with black smoke. Had a mortar hit the base or something? No, it was burning trash from inside the perimeter fence. Since we lived on the opposite side of the base from where we worked, we had to take a bus to get there. We lived right across the street from these despicable wastelands, but our bus ride brought us even closer. That first trip to work it was warm out and the windows were all down. All of a sudden a black haze, which reeked of burning plastic, engulfed the bus. We were all coughing and hacking, then jokingly the bus driver rang out with “Welcome to Balad” and laughed.
Some of the guys that had already deployed here were use to the burn pits and paid no attention to it. They warned of the “Iraqi crud” we would experience from the burn pits and the sand storms and that we would “get use to it.” There was no getting use to it..
Day after day the effects of the toxic inferno were noticed. I was constantly coughing, my nose would run non-stop, and it felt like I had a bad chest cold. I was seen numerous times by the flight doctor and normally was given cough drops and sent on my way. Since I was not the type to just give in, I always pressed forward and did my job to the best of my abilities.
Unfortunately for everyone who has been deployed, there was no escaping the noxious sea of flames. My room was close enough to the burn pit that I would wake up and find soot on top of me. On exceptionally bad days, when we left our dorms the cloud of smoke was so thick you couldn’t even see the sun in the middle of the day. A few times I was assigned to “bird control” duty. This entailed me going into the burn pits without any PPE (personal protective equipment) and shooting birds with pellet guns to help prevent bird strikes on aircraft. I was probably only in there for an hour or two, but I’m sure I breathed in smoke equivalent to five lifetimes of smoking. At the time I was just “following orders.”
When we made it to our FOB in Afghanistan none of us really knew what to expect. It was a cold and desolate place. We also didn’t realize we were some of the only Americans on our side of the base. Within hours of landing, a familiar aroma filled the air: burning trash. We had been assigned a helipad close to the burn pit and directly across from the sling load area. This made for a particularly crappy deployment.
Soon we started experiencing what can only be described as “black snow.” The ash and soot from the burn pits was pluming high into the air and raining down upon us. It was disgusting. Everything we did surrounded the pit. The chow tent, work, and sleeping all of them would be engulfed in smoke depending on the wind. Again, there was no escaping.
This is when many of my symptoms started rearing their ugly head. For the entirety of the trip I couldn’t stop coughing. My throat was becoming raw and it was painful to swallow my food. When I would try to run I would cough and get winded much faster than usual. What was happening to me?
This intoxicating stench has affected tens of thousands of veterans. I will never forget that smell. Its repugnancy is now burned into my nasal passages. The damage it has caused is mind boggling. It’s time for Washington D.C. to do something about it and not allow another 10 years of self-harming our veterans.
How was it that people thought this would have no negative effects on our health? This question continues to baffle me…
Note: The title is a play on words just to be clear :-)