Richard Ronald Guilmette
Richard Ronald Guilmette of Enterprise, Alabama, was always a man’s man.
The one-time personal trainer was active in kickboxing and Taekwondo when he joined the Army National Guard in October 1987. He trained to become a helicopter pilot and was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where for a year, beginning in March 2004, he piloted cargo and people on and off the military base and conducted air assaults.
Today, Guilmette, 53, is discharged from the military. He is classified as disabled.
Debilitating migraines, asthma, lung disease, PTSD and memory problems keep him mostly at home where he relies on a host of medications, inhalers, and a sleep apnea machine at night. Now, his exercise consists of walking the dog down the street.
Because of his medical conditions, he lost his job as a flight instructor at Fort Rucker, Alabama, a setback he calls a “kick in the butt.”
He tells IB News, “My wife and daughter say I came back a different person.”
While in Afghanistan, Guilmette lived in a tent a quarter mile from a burn pit where black, green, yellow, and orange-colored smoke enveloped him and other servicemen daily.
“The running joke about it was that it was SARS, we all got the SARS, and we smelled like burning baby crap. We joked about it and learned to live with it,” he tells IB News.
And live with it they did.
At an estimated 80 military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, waste was disposed of the old fashioned way - in open burn pits. Many may still be in operation today.
Car batteries, amputated limbs, computers, pesticides, unexploded ordinances, chemicals, rat poison, hydraulic fluid, plastic water bottles, tires, medical waste – just about everything and anything was tossed into the pits. The burning waste sent off a smoldering, low-hanging smoke that engulfed everyone living downwind.
There was an air conditioning system in Guilmette’s tent, but he says its ducts filled with black mold.
Leon Russell Keith, who worked for defense contractor KBR as a paramedic at the Balad base in Iraq from March 2006 to July 2007, and at Basra from April 2008 until June 2009, told a Senate Democratic Policy Committee last November, there was nothing that KBR would not put in the burn pits.
“I have never heard of any KBR restrictions on what could be burned in the pit. The color of the smoke would change depending on what was burned. Sometimes the smoke was a yellowish color. But the worst was when the smoke would be a dark greenish color. On these days, the KBR medical clinic where I worked could expect an increased number of patients, all complaining of burning throats, eyes as well as painful breathing… In my estimation, at least 30 to 40 percent of the total patient traffic at the medical clinic was generated by the poor air quality.”
Today Keith has Parkinson’s disease and pulmonary problems and has been medically disqualified to return to Iraq. He also has no health insurance.
Guilmette, and the others who had been in the Army for a long time, knew there was a proper way of disposing of garbage. In the past they had packed it up and taken it to a landfill. Burning all kinds of garbage so close to personnel didn’t make sense.
“I talked to a flight surgeon about it,” says Guilmette. “I asked him about the burned human feces, and he said that won’t make you sick, but the burning plastics is really gonna get you. The molecules are so big you can breathe them in. He said the burning plastics can cause cancer and are highly toxic.”
“Plaintiff Guilmette’s conditions are a direct result of his exposure to the toxic emissions from the burn pits,” says the complaint filed by law firm Motley Rice LLC of Charleston, S.C. (and IB member) and Burke PLLC of Washington D.C.
It names defendants Texas-based contractors KBR, Inc.; Kellogg, Brown & Root Services, Inc.; Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC and Halliburton Company and Turkish-based ERKA Ltd.
Guilmette’s name is first in a long list of Plaintiffs that stretches 117 pages.
In all, 300 service men and women from 43 states are named so far and the intake has tripled since the cases were consolidated in December, 2009 in the KBR, Inc., Burn Pit MDL (multidistrict litigation) before Maryland District Judge Roger W. Titus.
Plaintiffs allege that private contractors exposed military personnel to toxic smoke, ash and fumes which caused chronic illness and death. The lawsuit’s collective claims include those for battery, breach of contract, breach of duty to warn, future medical expenses, intentional infliction of emotional distress, medical monitoring, negligence and wrongful death.
Estimates are 100,000 may have been exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits.
Across Afghanistan and Iraq, burn pits are overseen by defense contractor KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton.
KBR received a lucrative LOGCAP contract even before the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. The Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), contracts with non-military private companies to provide everyday needs to the troops - food, water, deliveries and base medical facilities.
KBR is the largest defense contractor in Iraq with more than $20 billion in contracts for logistical support of troops, often in no-bid contracts, thanks in part to friends in high places.
When former Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary, he reportedly paid Halliburton subsidiary, Brown & Root Services, nearly $9 million to determine whether a private company could provide services to American services fighting oversees. Cheney went on to serve as CEO of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000 and retired with a severance package worth $36 million, reported the Guardian in 2004.
No one knows how many burn pits are still in operation but the effort to uncover documents through discovery has been blocked by the defendants who claim immunity because the country is at war.
Plaintiffs want the judge to consider case law.
*Update* In 2008, KBR claimed a political question of immunity in the case filed by survivors of a truck convoy that came under attack by Iraqui insurgents in 2004. The 5th Circuit rejected that argument stating, "it may be possible to resolve the clams without needing to make a constitutionally impermissible review of wartime decision making."
While that constitutional question of immunity in wartime is sorted out, the plaintiffs claim this is a simple contract dispute - did KBR breach its contract with the U.S. government?
Military field manuals allow for operation of burn pits on a “short-term” basis and the contractor is supposed to follow U.S. environmental law or the environmental laws of the country they are occupying.
KBR, which has been identified by senators, employees, and lawyers, and the VA as overseeing the largest burn pit in Iraq - Balad - now denys its role.
In a statement, the company says, “KBR never operated or provided support services for the burn pit at Joint Base Balad" In other areas where KBR does provide burn pit services, “KBR does so in accordance with the relevant provisions of the LOGCAP contract.”
KBR says it was just following orders and it was up to the Army, not KBR, to decide if a burn pit could be used or an incinerator was necessary, and where the burn pit would be constructed.
Photo from Mother Jones Web site
Lawyers for the plaintiffs remind the court that the service men and women had all passed physical fitness tests before being deployed. Now some can't walk up a flight of stairs; others can't get out of bed. And they're the lucky ones.
Plaintiff Jamie Nienajadlo is the surviving spouse of Danielle Nienajadlo of Ozark, Alabama. Danielle was exposed to toxic emissions from burn pits in Balad. While running on the base as part of her physical fitness training, she inhaled the burn pit fumes.
“We were always covered in ash and dirt. People got bloody noses and headaches” she told Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy in 2008.
Nienajadlo lost weight, was nauseous, had diarrhea, fatigue, difficulty breathing and was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia on July 26, 2008.
Staff Sergeant Nienajadlo died March 20, 2009, leaving behind three children, 3, 8, and 10, reports this month’s Mother Jones.
Most recently, KBR has filed court documents to stop lawyers for the plaintiffs from sharing stories of soldiers and talking about the case with the media. #