SALEM — A soldier from Salem is one of two Massachusetts Army National Guardsmen who filed a class-action lawsuit this week against Halliburton and KBR alleging they were "poisoned" by burn pits while stationed in Iraq.
Jeffrey Cox, who lives on Endicott Street and spent two years in Iraq as a combat stress social worker in the Army Reserve, claims the chronic cough he developed shortly after his return was caused by a toxic burn pit in Balad.
"I don't have an oxygen tank that I carry around, but it affects me," Cox said. "Everybody that knows me has heard my cough."
Cox said heavy smoke from the massive burn pits frequently filled his base and exposed soldiers to toxic fumes.
"I was downwind from the burning," Cox said. "You'd sit in there and breathe that in all day. ... The smoke was so thick some days that it went right into where I was sleeping. It was like a heavy fog of smoke."
Both companies deny responsibility.
The lawsuit alleges the pits were essentially a dumping ground for all unwanted materials — many of them toxic — ranging from human corpses to plastic foam to medical waste to hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles.
Everything was lit on fire, producing noxious fumes and flames that shot hundreds of feet into the sky, the lawsuit contends. The smoke and haze, often colored blue and green, filled the nearby living quarters of American soldiers and government contractors and sometimes reduced visibility to just a few yards, according to the lawsuit.
"They essentially poisoned the troops," said Susan Burke, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm Burke O'Neill LLC, which represents Cox.
Cox and a fellow Massachusetts soldier, James Garland of Osterville, who has been diagnosed with a rare form of carcinoma, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston. Some 200 other soldiers have filed 34 similar lawsuits in their respective states around the country, Burke said. Cox and Garland's lawsuit claims to be a class action on behalf of an estimated 100,000 troops exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The soldiers claim that both Halliburton and KBR acted negligently and unlawfully in their operation of the burn pits and that the companies' actions caused their illnesses.
Burke said other soldiers have suffered a variety of lung diseases, asthma and "career-limiting issues."
Some have even died from acute myeloid leukemia, she said.
Both Halliburton and KBR, however, strongly denied the allegations in separate statements released yesterday.
A Halliburton spokeswoman said the company is improperly named in the lawsuit.
"Halliburton has no responsibility, legal or otherwise, for the actions alleged," spokeswoman Diana Gabriel said.
KBR issued a fact sheet, where it essentially pointed the finger at the Army. The company asserted it never operated the burn pit at Joint Base Balad and that its burn pits followed operational guidelines approved by the Army. KBR does not decide where burn pits should be located or where to locate Army personnel, it said.
KBR refuses items that are prohibited from burn pits when it comes across them, according to the company.
Among the other allegations, "KBR does not place human body parts in burn pits," the company said.
Meanwhile, Burke said approximately 100 burn pits existed in Iraq and some 30 were in Afghanistan — many are still burning, she said.
And Cox is adamant that their effects are still being felt.
"The burn pits are like the Agent Orange of Vietnam," he said. "They've affected a lot of people that were in my unit and who are now on inhalers and have a lot of problems. ... It's affecting a whole generation of soldiers."
Staff writer Chris Cassidy can be reached at ccassidy@salem news.com.