Soldier's family believes cancer death tied to Army burn pits

Erin Jordan
Published: October 29 2012 | 9:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 2:40 am in
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For six months, Joshua Casteel slept 100 yards from an open-air burn pit that devoured everything from plastics and paint to electronics and human body parts.

The Cedar Rapids native didn’t know smoke from the pit may also have been devouring his lungs.

Casteel, a 32-year-old writer and peace activist, died Aug. 25 of lung cancer his family believes was caused by toxins from the burn pit at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, where Casteel served as an interrogator in 2004.

“I don’t think any of the soldiers thought twice about it,” said Kristi Casteel, Joshua’s mother. “Most of them, I’m sure, had no idea what they were breathing.”

Burn pits were the primary trash disposal system for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 200 tons of waste burned daily at some of the Army’s largest military bases. Among materials burned were plastics, metal cans, rubber, chemicals, paint and munitions, according to a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine.

These types of fires are illegal in the United States.

“That is for a reason,” Kristi Casteel said. “Because they’re toxic.”

Hundreds report illnesses

More than 200 people in 48 states have filed lawsuits against Kellogg Brown & Root, a Texas-based contractor that operated military burn pits. The suits allege soldiers were sickened by dangerous smoke and contaminated groundwater.

President Barack Obama pledged in 2009 that burn pits would not become like Agent Orange, a defoliant used in Vietnam that caused negative health effects the government would not acknowledge for decades.

Congress is moving to create a burn pit registry.

The Department of Defense isn’t ready to concede burn pits caused soldiers’ illnesses.

“Evidence to date is inconclusive,” the Department of Defense said in a statement to The Gazette.

“Some previously deployed personnel have experienced persistent symptoms or, in some cases, developed chronic respiratory diseases, possibly as a result of increased susceptibility, elevated exposures, combination of different exposures, preexisting health conditions, or other unknown factors,” the department said.

Unlikely victim

Casteel’s family doesn’t have proof his lung cancer was caused by the smoke that drifted from the burn pit to his barracks. He also worked two weeks at the pit without a mask and without warning about the possible dangers, his mother said.

But when Joshua was diagnosed with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma last November, doctors at the Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City were shocked to see the disease in an athletic young man who was not a regular smoker.

“Joshua died of lung cancer without having any of the conventional risk factors such as smoking, asbestos exposure or radiation,” Dr. Thor Halfdanarson, an oncologist, wrote to Kristi Casteel. “I am quite sure we did not have anyone younger with lung cancer those five years I worked at the VA.”

Joshua Casteel grew up in a military family and always planned to serve his country. He learned Arabic and became an interrogator at Abu Ghraib in 2004, following the prisoner abuse scandal.

In emails home, Casteel expressed frustration that he was forced to question taxi drivers, imams and others who were obviously not terrorists.

“It’s all such a dance: motives, methods, means and then what you do with what you get,” he wrote.

The last straw was an interrogation with a self-proclaimed jihadist who asked how Casteel could be both a soldier and a Christian. Casteel became a conscientious objector in 2005.

Soon after, Casteel enrolled in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, where he wrote an award-winning play about his experience as an interrogator. He was also part of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.

Casteel traveled to Rome in 2007 and met with senior Catholic officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, about justice and nonviolence.

Christopher Merrill, director of the UI’s International Writing Program, saw Casteel make peace with his military service by writing about it.

Read Casteel's 2010 essay about video game Modern Warfare 2.

“The war caused so many tragedies and those tragedies continue,” Merrill said. “What makes it particularly grievous for those of us in the writing community is that we know what potential he had and how many more pieces he could have given the world.”

Casteels not alone

Casteel’s story reminds Jill Wilkins of what happened to her husband, U.S. Air Force Maj. Kevin Wilkins. He died April 1, 2008, of a brain tumor after being exposed to toxins at a burn pit at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq in 2006.

“He walked through it (smoke) every day on his way to the barracks or the hospital,” said Jill Wilkins, of Eustis, Florida.

Kevin Wilkins was a registered nurse who served two tours in Iraq. When doctors discovered the brain tumor, they asked whether he had been exposed to any toxic chemicals in Iraq.

“Kevin said, ‘oh yeah,’” Jill Wilkins said. “Five days later he died.”

Wilkins received military benefits for her husband’s death.

While the military may be quietly compensating some families, a large-scale mea culpa likely would hinge on scientific links between burn pits and illnesses.

Dr. Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Stony Brook Medical Center in New York, has been studying dust from Iraq’s Camp Victory, which had a burn pit.

The dust particles are small enough to inhale and surprisingly sharp, which means they can cause more tissue damage, Szema said. There are also traces of titanium, which could come from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or electronics.

Mice exposed to the dust as part of Szema’s research developed lung inflammation and loss of T-cells, which defend against disease.

Soldiers may also have inhaled blowing sand, palm tree pollen and aerosolized metals from explosions, he said.

Casteel wanted the Army to take responsibility for his cancer. But he also wanted to live what was left of his life. He accepted a position teaching creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago, where he traveled once a week despite intense back pain caused by tumors in his spine.

Through chemotherapy, radiation, MRIs, PET scans and a host of drugs, Casteel’s mom and sisters stayed by his side and wrote a blog to friends and family around the world.

Joshua and Kristi Casteel went to New York last spring so Joshua could be part of a clinical trial, but the cancer was too much.

“Joshua passed away at 3:30 today, ending his hard-fought battle with cancer,” his sister Naomi Thompson wrote Aug. 25. “Our hearts are broken. The only comfort in this is knowing his pain is gone and he is now with his father.”

Casteel died less than a year after his father, Rick Casteel, died of nonhereditary brain cancer.

The Casteel family will continue to push for the Army to accept responsibility not just for Joshua and other Americans, but Iraqis who lived near burn pits.

“The same chemicals these soldiers breathed in on a daily basis are in the farming soil and in the groundwater,” Thompson said. “The Iraqi people are now going to be dealing with the same illnesses.”

The military has prohibited open burning of hazardous materials and has replaced many burn pits with incinerators. Commander Bill Speaks, a defense spokesman, wouldn’t tell The Gazette the locations of other burn pits, but said there are 88 still in operation in Afghanistan.

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