Faizabad, Afghanistan

A $60 million USAID development program in Northern Afghanistan ended in 2009 when every scrap of sensitive information was incinerated in a burn pit. East-West News Service editor David DeVoss, who was in charge of the program’s communications, monitors the fire along with an Afghan colleague.

By David DeVoss

This week President Biden will sign legislation guaranteeing extended healthcare and disability benefits to military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. The new law frees vets from having to prove a causal relationship between time spent incinerating trash and a subsequent respiratory illness.

According to Pres. Biden, GIs ordered to dispose of cancer-causing chemicals, cans, tires, plastics and medical waste in burn pits should automatically receive care with no questions asked. “This bill makes good on our sacred obligation” to care for veterans, he insists.

Biden is right. Washington has a moral obligation to care for personnel who fall ill because of duties they were ordered to perform. But is the new law based on a debt of honor, or a blank check estimated to add $277 billion to the federal deficit over the coming decade?

Unpleasant but Necessary

Burn pits are common in war zones on temporary fire bases lacking sewage or secure trash collection. But the bulk of the material burned is human waste, not toxic chemicals.

My first experience with burn pits occurred in Vietnam when I encountered two Spec 4s grimly pulling tubs of — What is that?? — from beneath an elevated privy. After dousing the contents with gasoline and throwing in a match they took shelter behind an armored personnel carrier.

After making certain the APC was upwind of the fire, I walked over and asked, “Why don’t you just dig a super deep hole below the toilets? Their response: “Water table’s too high. You don’t want to be here during the monsoon.”

In Iraq, the U.S. occupied bases previously belonging to Saddam Hussein’s army, so sanitation already existed. Burn pits on bases like Camp Liberty and Camp Adder outside of Nasiriya mainly were used to destroy documents and metal implements that could be fragmented and packed into IEDs.

Northern Afghanistan is less developed. I worked there on a $60 million USAID agricultural program whose goal was to make fruit and vegetable crops more profitable than opium. When the effort ended in 2009 I asked several Afghan colleagues to dig a shallow burn pit so I could destroy old maps, photographs and office equipment, plus financial records containing the names of Afghans who had benefitted from U.S. assistance.

Shredding Party

It turned into a party. We had given away all our old trucks and SUVs the day before to local officials in Faizabad and many had returned to thank us. As we gathered around the fire drinking hot tea, as bits of burned paper floated skyward  I thought back to the GIs I met years before in Vietnam. “My burn pit is better than theirs,” I smiled inwardly.

Everyone was happy. The locals had new roads, better crop varietals, improved irrigation and expanded farmers’ markets. As for the foreigners, well, we were leaving Afghanistan.  So I offered a toast to an even more prosperous and democratic Afghanistan that America would continue to support. We drank the tea silently, enjoying a moment of camaraderie. Then tossed the dregs on the fire.


David DeVoss is the editor of the East-West News Service. His photos of Afghanistan recently received a Silver Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for non-traditional travel reporting.