Timothy Lowery in 2008 while working in Iraq for KBR. His family wonders if fumes from burn pits in Iraq led to his death from ALS. (Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle)
- Filed Under
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Timothy Lowery went to Iraq in 2007. He came home in 2010, and started showing symptoms of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Three years later, he was dead.
This is the extent of what his family knows for certain.
But they have strong suspicions that daily exposure to burn pits — the massive, open-air ditches where the military dumped its waste and lit it ablaze — contributed to his condition.
Lowery, a plumber with one of the U.S. military’s largest contractors, KBR, walked by the pits daily as he installed piping, painted runways, and otherwise worked to help keep Al Asad Airbase running. Every day, he breathed in air filled with the smoke of burning metals, chemicals, and human waste.
Across the country, other families are worried, too. Thousands of returning veterans and civilians are now attributing myriad symptoms — respiratory problems, neurological disorders, cancers and ALS — to exposure to the burn pits, which were located at dozens of bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A lot of us got really sick from upper respiratory stuff,” said Stacy Fogarty, an Air Force veteran who came home from Iraq with asthma and other breathing problems. “They’re doing the research right now, but my personal prediction is it’s going to be like Agent Orange for this era. We just don’t really know what the ramifications are yet.”
Many are trying to get the military to cover their medical costs. Others are suing KBR, which operated some of the burn pits, accusing them of dumping into them all manner of unapproved items — tires, oil, chemicals and medical waste.
For the Lowerys, the controversy has brought a fresh edge to their pain. Now, they’re not sure whether his death was bad luck, or whether he spent his years overseas being slowly, steadily poisoned.
Contracting ALS is, quite simply, a horrible way to die.
Over the course of months or years, the body starts to shut down one piece at a time. Motor functions are impaired and then lost. Speech gets more challenging. And eventually, the lungs give out.
It’s almost always fatal; most people die in the first few years, and greater than 90 percent die within 10 years.
But the cruelest part, said Timothy Lowery’s son Dylan, is that the disease leaves the brain almost completely untouched.
“All the while, you’re totally of sound mind,” said Dylan Lowery, 20, of Rochester. “You know your surroundings. You know what’s happening. ... It’s just degrading.”
For Timothy Lowery, the first symptoms came when he returned to his home in Georgia in late 2010. His girlfriend and future wife Kate Lowery noticed that he had tremors in his arm, and when he tried to go back to work as a plumber in July 2011 he came home saying that he was too weak and that he wasn’t capable of doing the job any more.
“I’ve never seen him cry before as the way he did then,” said Kate Lowery, 49, of Hampton, Ga.
Lowery, who had lived for much of his life in Dansville, came back to the Rochester area in January 2012, hoping to find a job that he could handle. Upon arriving, family members noticed him slurring his speech.
Soon, Lowery started dragging his foot when he walked. He had trouble turning the ignition in his car. He steadfastly refused to go to a doctor. But in July 2012, his condition worsening, his sisters forced him into a car and drove him to Strong Memorial Hospital. His diagnosis came shortly afterward.
In his final months, his family started asking questions about his time overseas. The burn pits, which on Al Asad Airbase were operated by the military, were almost always active, he said. His work — 13 hours a day, every day, always outdoors — took him to every area of the base, and he walked by the burn pits regularly.
Dust and sand from the surrounding climate would mix with the smoke from the pits. The mixture was in the air all the time, and Lowery often wore goggles to keep it out of his eyes.
In October 2012, with his faculties starting to fail him completely, he moved back to Georgia to be with Kate. They got married in February, just one month before his death. He was 51 years old.
'Anything and everything'
Only one study has been done on the long-term health effects of burn pits. The study, conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2011, could not draw any concrete conclusions about the adverse effects.
Meanwhile, returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have continued to assert that burn pits were the cause of their problems.
Fogarty, 27, of Greece, N.Y., served in the Air Force at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, and was responsible for dumping hospital supplies into burn pits on the base. Fogarty said that material that was considered a biohazard was disposed of elsewhere, but that everything else went into the pits, which were burning constantly.
“Whatever we had to get rid of, we burned: beds and trash, used supplies,” said Fogarty. “Anything and everything: there were (airplane) parts in there.”
Earlier this year, after an audit that blasted burn pit operations at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, lawmakers moved to establish a registry for service members and veterans who were exposed to potentially toxic fumes from the pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently setting up the registry.
The lawsuits, meanwhile, have targeted KBR because the company was responsible for waste disposal and burn pit operation on about a third of the military’s bases.
Fifty-seven of those suits — 44 class-actions and 13 individual suits, representing several hundred people and families — were combined into a single case in Maryland. In the suit, plaintiffs accuse KBR of negligent operation of the burn pits: using them to dispose of hazardous waste and items on “do not burn” lists, failing to take steps to minimize smoke from the pits, and using the pits instead of incinerators, among other allegations.
One potential witness, Rick Lamberth, a former KBR employee, testified to Congress in 2009 that he personally witnessed KBR employees dump chemical decontamination materials, biomedical waste, plastics, oil, and tires into burn pits in violation of military regulations.
Lamberth, who served 31 years in the Army Reserve and spent time in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq in military and civilian capacities, testified that he had suffered from shortness of breath and skin rashes, and had spit up bloody mucus since returning from Iraq.
He also alleged that KBR knew that the pits were dangerous, and that management attempted to cover up such information.
“When I tried to report violations, I was told by the head of KBR’s Health Safety and Environment division to shut up and keep it to myself,” said Lamberth in 2009. “At one point, KBR management threatened to sue me for slander if I spoke out about these violations.”
In response to the allegations that unapproved material was disposed of in the KBR-operated burn pits, a spokesman for the company said those reports are anecdotal and cannot be supported by evidence.
“We’ve looked extensively at our records and we clearly don’t have records that would substantiate that,” said Mark Lowes, vice president of litigation for KBR Inc.
In a phone interview earlier this week, Lowes said that the military decided what was supposed to be disposed of in the burn pits, and was regularly monitoring KBR’s operations.
“They would come in and evaluate our performance,” said Lowes. “If we were causing a huge problem, inconsistent with what they want, they’d be chewing on us and giving us poor evaluations for what we’d done.”
The class-action lawsuit against KBR was dismissed earlier this year. The judge ruled that KBR should be afforded the same legal protection as the military. (Soldiers cannot sue the armed forces for injuries sustained while on active duty.)
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have appealed the decision.