Former major tells about his attempts to stop the use of dangerous burn pits in Iraq military base

INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EXCLUSIVE —The dangers of fire pit positions on the Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq, were first noted when the AMERICAN military presence was at its height, but nothing was done to remedy the problem, Fox News has learned.

A former major, who served as the basis of the environmental officer back in 2004, said he warned Marez top brass of the dangerous chemical substances released in the air after a medical waste, chemicals and trash were thrown in the open air garbage pits and set ablaze. But, he added, his warnings fell on deaf ears.

“They weren’t very receptive when I brought it up,” retired Maj. John “Doc” Nelson said in a recent interview with Fox News’ investigative unit. “We could never get an answer.”


“I am concerned about the burn pits still another Vietnam or Agent Orange,” he added, “and I do not think that these vets have to wait for 25 years for someone to acknowledge that there is a problem.”

Burn pits at FOB Marez, were originally regarded as a temporary measure to get rid of large quantities of waste generated on base. The matrix of the material sent to the burner is said to have included, plastic, batteries, metals, household appliances, medicine, dead animals, and even human waste.

(With thanks to John Nelson)

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the burn pit disposal method was originally introduced as a temporary way to get rid of the huge amounts of waste and waste generated at many of the bases. A range of materials went into the pits for incineration: plastic, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals, even human waste. The items were often set ablaze with jet fuel as the accelerant.

The combustion generates a host of pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide — the same chemical found in Agent Orange, which left many Vietnam war veterans sick after it was used as a defoliant in that conflict.

The 65-year-old Nelson says that he was able to see the dangers of the burn pits, while those at FOB Marez.

“It would literally darken the sky,” he said, pointing to the large plumes of smoke rose up out of the pit, and hung over the base.

“I remember one day, I was back at about 300 metres. I could still see the flames above the pit.”

Nelson states that the garbage piled at its base burn pit over the two years that he was there, and that the smoldering fires almost never went out.

Concerned with the safety of his fellow soldiers, Nelson the matter with the top brass in Marez, but he said he quickly learned that the bureaucracy and red tape prevent the implementation of the correct procedures.

“That burn pit kept bothering me, because I could smell it and I could see it. It’s never stopped burning.

– Retired Maj. John “Doc” Nelson

“I told ’em it’s not a question of if, but when,” Nelson said, referring to the potential danger.

Fed up with the pace that it took to make headway on the improvement of methods for the disposal of wastes, Nelson, along with one of the employees on the basis of the contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), took matters into their own hands. They gathered volunteers to pull of hazardous materials from the waste by hand before they can be added to the smoldering burn pits.


Military burn pits to blame for long-term health problems

“We started putting pressure on the local level,” Nelson said. “We got some volunteers and we went in and started pulling items out of the pits.”

Marez is the same base where KBR contractor Veronica Landry worked, also in 2004. As first reported on Fox News Channel, Landry recently filed a case with the Ministry of Labor, the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, and last month a judge decided that the open-air burn pits — where thousands of chemicals were released into the air after the trash and other waste were burned at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan-are connected with a lung disease.

“My concern is that we had Sop’s [standard operating procedures that were not followed,” Ray Gelinas, a former KBR contractor who assisted Nelson in the cleanup, said on Fox News. “You never knew what was thrown in there.”

Major Nelson, who served as the Marez, the environmental officer back in 2004, says that he warned the base top brass of the dangerous chemicals that were released into the air as a result of the burn pits.

(With thanks to John Nelson)

It was around September 2004, when Gelinas and Nelson began to go to the pits, that they discovered what was thrown.

“That burn pit kept bothering me,” recalled Nelson, “because I could smell it and I could see it. It’s never stopped burning. I was told that it was burning for a whole year, before I got there, and a whole year while I was there.

“I went down to the burn pit, because I was more and more concerned with the amount of debris, so I went to take a look and I started seeing the batteries and the cadmium batteries, the lead. That everything was on fire. They put the oils and the paint and fuels. All of these things, and it has led to the creation of toxicity and I was constantly worried about.”

Nelson says that they also found large quantities of medical waste, such as IV drips, needles, blood in the tissues and even outside.

“They would wait until the middle of the night to drop off,” he said. “The next morning we would show up and there was everything in it.”

According to a 2008 KBR memo on standard operating procedure for burning of wells obtained by Fox News, items that are not to be disposed of in burn pits included: propane gas bottles, jerry cans, paints, fuels, oils, chemicals, ammunition, explosives, flammables, medical waste, metals, batteries and tyres.

Nelson argues that not only were all these things in the Marez burn pits, but there were no protocols in place during his time there.

Nelson eventually rounded up volunteers to go and pull out hazardous materials from the waste by hand before they were added to the smoldering burn pits.

(With thanks to John Nelson)

“No one thought. Nobody cared,” he said.

Nelson and Gelinas attempted to remedy the situation by setting up systems to take control of the problem.

“We did what we could to help with what we had,” he said. “We worked with a way that we can to start controlling this problem. Of course, everything was at our level, we never have the support of the higher echelons. I don’t think anyone understood what was going on, because we were supposed to have incinerators in place.”

Nelson claims that the incinerators were purchased to properly dispose of hazardous substances at FOB Marez, but they are not installed and were left to rust away in a warehouse.

“If we had incinerators in the place, that we could have used for medical waste. We can do,” he says, “But KBR had the ovens already in the country [Iraq], DOD had already paid for them and they were ready to be installed.”

Nelson says that they also found large quantities of medical waste, such as IV drips, needles, blood in the tissues and even outside.

(With thanks to John Nelson)

“She is not installed. And they had them nine or 10 months and they still did not install.”

A spokesman of the KBR declined to comment on Nelson’s claims, instead of referring to a previous statement provided to Fox News.

“The limited number of bases where KBR-operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the AMERICAN army,” reads the statement. “The government of the best scientific and opinions of the experts have repeatedly concluded there is no link between long-term health and burn-pit emissions.”

Officials of the Ministry of Defence Central Command (CENTCOM) were not able to confirm for Fox News that incinerators were purchased around 2004 for FOB Marez and other bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying tha records were archived after three years. They said, however, that the installation of such systems have been delayed due to procedural issues.

Nelson claims that incinerators were purchased to properly dispose of hazardous substances at FOB Marez, but were not installed.

(With thanks to John Nelson)

“For the installation, the agreement with the service provider had to be adapted for the incinerator can be installed,” read a statement by CENTCOM officials provided to Fox News.

“The original agreement called for the contractor to manage the burn pits, and any modification of the original contract had to be worked out between the contracting office and the service provider.”

Nelson is also a survivor of a suicide bombing that took place on a mess tent at Marez in 2004. As a result of his injuries, where serious damage to his shoulder joints, and the short-term memory loss, he was to retire. His permanent disability him unable to continue practicing medicine when he returned to Maine in 2005. He wasn’t sure what he would do.

Then he started with the help of a few veterinarians in his community who were having difficulty obtaining medical help and coverage of Veterans Affairs.

“I found them to help. It gave me a goal,” Nelson said. “So I kept helping more and more veterinarians.”

Almost 15 years later, Nelson is still helping vets about Maine, and even outside the state’s borders.

He opened an office in a building he owns on Main Street in Lincoln, about an hour north of Bangor. Vets for his help in navigating through the often complex VA benefits system. He called his office after Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. Gary Gordon.

MSG Gordon, also a resident of Lincoln, was killed in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. The assignment was the basis of the 1999 book ” Black Hawk Down.” The centre has drawn in and volunteers to help with the day-to-day office tasks such as Nelson takes on more and more cases.

“I always felt honored to help our veterans,” he said. “I care about them deeply.”

He also hopes that 150,000-plus veterans at the VA’s burn-pit registry to get the assistance they need.

“I think it is time for the VA to stop giving lip service and making registries and start doing something with those records,” he said emphatically. “What is the research going to do for us … and how long should we wait?”

Perry Chiaramonte is a producer, Fox News Channel, Investigative Unit. Follow him on Twitter via @perrych

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