Cedar Rapids family blames burn pit in Iraq for son's cancer death

Hundreds of soldiers, veterans suing contractor that operated pits on military's behalf

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Cedar Rapids native Joshua Casteel, 32, died Aug. 25 of lung cancer his family believes was caused by toxins from an Army burn pit at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, where he served as an interrogator in 2004.

“I don’t think any of the soldiers thought twice about it,” said Kristi Casteel, Joshua’s mother. “Most of them, I’m sure, had no idea what they were breathing.”

Burn pits were the primary trash disposal system for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 200 tons of waste burned daily at some of the Army’s largest military bases. Among materials burned were plastics, metal cans, rubber, chemicals, paint and munitions, according to a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine.

These types of fires are illegal in the United States. Hundreds of soldiers and veterans are suing the Texas-based contractor that operated the burn pits on behalf of the military.

The Department of Defense isn’t ready to concede burn pits caused soldiers’ illnesses.

“Evidence to date is inconclusive,” the department said in a statement.

“Some previously deployed personnel have experienced persistent symptoms or, in some cases, developed chronic respiratory diseases, possibly as a result of increased susceptibility, elevated exposures, combination of different exposures, preexisting health conditions, or other unknown factors,” the department said.

The Casteel family will continue to push for the Army to accept responsibility not just for Joshua and other Americans, but Iraqis who lived near burn pits.

“The same chemicals these soldiers breathed in on a daily basis are in the farming soil and in the groundwater,” said Naomi Thompson, Casteel’s sister. “The Iraqi people are now going to be dealing with the same illnesses.”

For an extended version of this story, read Sunday’s Gazette or check TheGazette.com on Sunday.

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