Once upon a time, in a far off land called Iraq, there was a little sulfur mine called Al-Mishrak near Mosul. In June of 2003, unknown parties, most likely Iraqi insurgents, working in the name of, or at the behest of Saddam Hussein, set the mine ablaze. It was the largest release of sulfur dioxide in all of recorded human history.
The 101st Airborne Division was based in Northern Iraq at the time, spread between Mosul, Qayyarah West Airfield, and a few other smaller bases. As the winds shifted throughout the day, it would blow a plume of dense sulfur dioxide across the land. For Qayyarah West Airfield, it would blow right at us from just before sunrise until around lunchtime or early afternoon. We would wake up choking in a yellow fog, as though we had woken up on the planet Venus (without the diamond rain, unfortunately).
For several days to a week, we would still get up and do physical training at 0630, then got about our daily duties, unaware of the danger we were surrounded by. Eventually, the Division surgeon put a stop to it, after which, when we woke up in the morning, we would don our gas masks and go back to sleep.
Fast forward a bit. Upon redeployment back to Fort Campbell, a large number of soldiers were having varying degrees of breathing issues. Several were sent to a pulmonary specialist at Vanderbilt for testing and investigation. After countless tests and invasive lung biopsies, it was determined that they had a condition known as constrictive bronchiolitis. The symptoms include, but are not limited to, shortness of breath, and occasionally coughing, due to obliterated air sacs in the lungs. It is frequently misdiagnosed as asthma, but there is no airway restriction common to asthma. Asthma medications have little to no effect (unless there is pre-existing asthma), as they open the bronchial tubes, but constrictive bronchiolitis is an issue with the air sacs themselves. There is no cure.
Since 2003, I have had issues with shortness of breath from moderate exertion, snoring and sleep apnea. I didn’t take note of it until a few years later, because of the uncontrolled pain from my back injury. As we found a medication that helped with my back, other issues became more apparent, because I could no longer write them off as being related to the strain from my back pain. In 2015, I was diagnosed officially with sleep apnea and “asthma”, prescribed steroidal inhalers, and a CPAP machine. The meds didn’t help, but the CPAP did help me (and my wife 😉 ) sleep.
Today, I met with the doctor who made the discovery. I had a chest x-ray, pulmonary function tests, exercise while connected to a pulse oximeter, and a CT scan. I’m still waiting on the results of the CT scan, but two things were made abundantly clear; I do not have asthma, and my lung capacity is only at 80%. To be 100% sure of a diagnosis of constrictive bronchiolitis, I will have to undergo invasive lung biopsies. We’ve put that off for now, for at least 6 more months, as it is a major surgical procedure, that will have me down for weeks. Dr. Miller also told me that not only has he discovered this condition with those exposed to the Mishrak sulfur mine fire, but also those heavily exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2003, before we had port-a-potties, we would build our own outhouses and place them over metal barrels or holes in the ground, and would have to burn our own shit with diesel fuel, to sterilize it before it was dumped into the burn pits, which we then burned. Tens of thousands of us we’re exposed to the Mishrak sulfur mine fire, but many times that number were exposed to the burn pits.
What’s the point of all of this? I don’t know an exact number, nor do I even have an educated estimate, but there are likely countless thousands of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from this ailment. The Veterans Administration doesn’t even recognize that it exists. Some of us have been denied service connection for our condition. Some of us they have been misdiagnosed. Some of us they have ignored outright. This ends now.
Our country sent us off to fight a war. There are diverse opinions on to it’s legality, morality, execution and conclusion. This isn’t about that. This is about the negligence of our government in not taking precautions, and not even acknowledging and taking care of the result after the fact. Constrictive bronchiolitis from the Mishrak sulfur mine fire and burn pits is the Agent Orange of the Global War on Terrorism. The government must be held accountable.
If you are one of the affected service members, and are exhibiting these symptoms, get checked out. If the VA blows you off, go see a private pulmonary doctor, and take this information with you. If you get a diagnosis of constrictive bronchiolitis, take that to the Veterans Administration, and force them to finally acknowledge this. If you live within driving distance to Nashville, Tennessee, go see Dr. Miller (link below), as he is the foremost expert on this condition.