By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune

Part One: What doesn’t kill you
Jan. 16, 2010

In Vietnam, Jim Ogden flew through clouds of Agent Orange. In Desert Storm, he hovered past burning oil fields. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, he worked near a thick black plume of burning plastic, metals, chemicals and medical waste.

Along the way he took injection after injection and swallowed pill after pill. He breathed in herbicides and pesticides. And he never questioned whether all of those drugs, toxins and poisons might someday do him harm.

Not until he lost his eyesight.

Now the former Marine and master helicopter mechanic can't help but wonder what, if anything, was to blame.

Though often in unintended and unexpected ways, military service has sickened generations of U.S. service members. But the only way for veterans to ensure medical care and compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs is to prove that their illnesses are "service-connected." But the complexity of linking myriad mysterious ailments to military service -- and the budgetary burden of caring for millions of sick and dying veterans -- limits the number of veterans that the VA can help.

Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the VA is still slowly adding to the list of conditions recognized as related to Agent Orange exposure. And nearly 20 years after the first U.S. war in Iraq, the VA still doesn't recognize Gulf War Illness as a diagnosis worthy of care or compensation -- even as a federal commission has determined the condition is real and affects tens of thousands of veterans.

That's to say nothing of veterans, like Ogden, who don't know how they got sick.
Meanwhile, military and political leaders have failed to heed lessons from past wars that could help identify mysterious illnesses.

'Not like this'
The view from Ogden's East Millcreek home is a stunning panorama of the Salt Lake Valley, but the Marine Corps veteran's favorite room is in the basement. Across the walls of a long den is a virtual biography of more than four decades of service in the Marines and as a civilian Black Hawk helicopter mechanic for the Army. The photographs and commendations begin in Vietnam, where he was a crew chief on a CH-53 transport helicopter in 1967; and end in Iraq, where he worked for Sikorsky Aircraft in 2004. In all of those years, he never called in sick.

A few months after his return from Iraq, Ogden suddenly began having trouble seeing out of his left eye. A few months after that, he awoke unable to see anything out of the other eye. Soon he was completely blind in his right eye and nearly so in the left.

"I'd always had good eyesight," Ogden said. "And then, all of the sudden, I didn't. I can't read a magazine. I can't use a computer. I can't put a nail in the wall."
Doctors told Ogden that he had suffered a series of optic nerve strokes. There was no cure. His career was over. He'd been planning to retire, "but not like this."

A year later, Ogden was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a disease in which the areas of the brain associated with personality, behavior and language begin to shrink. Later, his doctors warned, he might become socially inappropriate, impulsive or emotionally blunted. Ultimately, they said, he may lose the ability to use and understand language.

The diagnoses were terrifyingly specific; the causes were maddeningly unclear. No one could tell Ogden what had gone wrong. But in between medical appointments, unable to do many of the activities he had planned for his retirement, the 67-year-old man had a lot of time for speculation.

Perhaps it was the Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used by the U.S. military to destroy enemy jungle hideaways in Vietnam, linked to more than a dozen diseases and suspected of contributing to dozens more. Or maybe it was the bromide pills he took during his first trip to Kuwait in the early 1990s. The tablets were supposed to help increase survival during a chemical weapons attack, but are suspected of contributing to a slew of conditions known as Gulf War Illness.

Or possibly it was the putrid fumes and thick black smoke that wafted over the largest U.S. military base in Iraq from a 10-acre trash heap that was set ablaze in 2003 and, in subsequent years, burned all manner of toxic garbage. Some veterans and their families believe the Balad Air Base burn pit -- and similar operations scattered throughout Iraq and Afghanistan -- are to blame for numerous respiratory, neurological and cancerous conditions.

"It could be any of that or it could be nothing at all," Ogden conceded. "I don't think there is anyone out there who has the answers."

Because he can't prove that his illness is connected to his service, Ogden doesn't qualify for VA care. "We're fortunate that we have other means," said his wife, Kathy. "But we've tried to find someone from the VA who might be interested in looking at him, just to see if there's anything they can learn about him that could help other people. No one is interested."

'That's just not in my doctor book'
A teetering stack of medical journals sits on Larry Meyer's desk at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City. The pile gets taller each week, and although Meyer fights to keep up, only the bottom third of the magazines in the stack have broken bindings.

As the hospital's chief of research, Meyer tries to link symptoms to diseases and diseases to causes. Most of the time, he can diagnose on the spot. But he can't always tell his patients why they are sick -- at least not with the specificity they need to prove their ailment is service-related.

"It is with great frequency that I am humbled," Meyer said. "There are times when I must say, 'That's just not in my doctor book.' "

One way to explain the challenge: melanoma.

"I've seen a lot of really horrible cases of skin cancer from guys who spent years on the deck of an aircraft carrier during World War II," Meyer said.

Skin cancer is relatively easy to diagnose. But while it's obvious that the risk of developing it would be greater for those who served -- often without so much as a shirt on their back -- in the middle of the South Pacific, Meyer can't draw a direct link.

"Skin cancer takes decades to develop and it is the result of accumulative exposure," he said, noting that he's beginning to see similar conditions from veteran sailors from the wars in Korea and Vietnam. "How much of any one person's exposure was a result of their time in the military? That, I cannot say."

'Keep fighting'
James Bunker left Iraq in a fit of uncontrollable convulsions. No one could say what had gone wrong, but doctors suspected the Army artillery officer may have been exposed to a small amount of nerve agent when his division destroyed a large ammunition depot during Operation Desert Storm.

Over time, Bunker lost the use of his hands, arms and legs. Within a year of being sent home, he was discharged.

"The Army told me the VA would help me," the former soldier told the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security in 2004. "The VA said it was all in my head."

Enraged and impassioned by his own experiences, the 50-year-old Kansas man now battles bureaucrats and politicians on behalf of other Gulf War vets, tens of thousands of whom returned from the Middle East suffering from chronic fatigue, heightened chemical sensitivity, skeletal pain, skin rashes and other medical conditions that physicians were unable to attribute to a single cause.

For years, the government was reluctant to respond, noting that scientific studies had yet to find a cause for the strange syndrome. And without a cause, VA officials could do little but deny the war fighters' claims. Five years after the Gulf War, the Government Accountability Office determined that of the 7,845 undiagnosed claims made by Gulf War vets, the VA had approved just 392 for compensation or medical help.

Last year, Bunker and other veterans advocates scored a big win: A federal panel of medical experts agreed that Gulf War Illness is real and affects at least a quarter of the 700,000 veterans who served in the 1990-91 conflict. But the VA has said only that it promises to "review and respond to the committee's recommendations in the near future."

Eighteen years after the war's end, Bunker hasn't achieved one of his main goals: The government still doesn't recognize Gulf War Illness as a compensation-worthy diagnosis. Instead, it is up to sick veterans to establish that each symptom is related to their wartime service.

Bunker tells fellow veterans to "keep fighting," no matter how much paperwork they must file or how many times their claims are denied.

Federal law and administrative policy often position Mark Bilosz on the opposite side of that fight, but the director of the VA's regional office in Salt Lake City offers the same advice.

"If you're a veteran and you've got something wrong with you and you've got any inkling that it could be related to military service, I always say to file a claim," said Bilosz, whose first job with the VA was reviewing veterans' claims for compensation.

The VA might deny the claim initially, Bilosz said, but ultimately -- perhaps years down the road -- a connection might be made between a disease and its cause. Prostate cancer, for instance. Today any Vietnam veteran who suffers from that disease is entitled to VA care and compensation because the ailment has been connected to Agent Orange exposure. "But 15 years ago it wasn't," Bilosz said. "It would have been denied back then."

'We don't know what we don't know'
When military health officials ultimately conceded a need to better study the potential existence of Gulf War Illness, there was one major obstacle: The Defense Department had no way to determine exactly where nearly 700,000 military men and women served.

"Up to that point in time, electronic databases only captured the country that individuals were deployed to," said Craig Postlewaite, the U.S. military's senior health protection official. That left "a huge gap," Postlewaite said. And that made it difficult, if not impossible, to connect environmental exposures to specific service members, Postlewaite said.

To remedy the situation, military leaders ordered a record-by-record accounting of the whereabouts of every military member. The effort began in 1996, continued for several years and cost several million dollars.

But when the United States went back to battle -- in the same nation -- in 2003, it still didn't have a tracking process in place. It wasn't until 2006 that the military implemented a tracking system adequate for epidemiological studies, Postlewaite said, and that system wasn't fully functional until 2009.

Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., is appalled. He's planning legislation to fill the gap -- essentially duplicating the record-by-record examination that took place in the 1990s. But even if Bishop's proposed bill becomes law, it may not lead to clear answers about why some veterans got sick.

Those answers simply might not exist, said Michael Battistone, a rheumatologist in the VA Salt Lake City health care system.

"All of us try to make sense of what goes on around us and within us," he said. "When something happens, we want to know why."

Battistone said ailments suffered by veterans could be the result of an exposure to one toxin or the convergence of many. Sorting through all the possibilities -- for millions of people, each with different genetic susceptibilities -- might not be feasible, he said.

But Battistone, whose perspectives on health care are colored by his experiences as the son of an Adventist minister, wonders whether that should really matter.

"How can we look these returning veterans in the eyes and when we say 'Thank you,' have that mean something more?" asked Battistone, who grew up listening to recordings of U.S. Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall, who extolled his followers to live up to the sacrifices made on their behalf. "How can we live in such a way that our actions and our character are worthy of the sacrifices they have made?"

Perhaps, he said, humility is a start.

"Maybe we just need to be able to say, 'We don't know what we don't know, but we will care for you regardless.' "

If that is the ideal, this nation has a long way to go. The VA spent nearly $48 billion on medical care for about 5.5 million veterans last year.

About 18 million veterans were left to their own devices.

Part Two: Dying for Answers

Jan. 17, 2010

Combat had changed him.

Yet Andrew Rounds was still the adoring son his mother had sent off to war. He was still the hard worker who had helped her deliver newspapers after school. He was still the amiable soul who knew the names of everyone in the tiny village of Waterloo, Ore., from the mayor to the man who lived under the narrow bridge that crosses the river on the east side of town.

And he was home. That's all Lisa Rounds needed to know. After a year at war in Iraq, her son was safe.

Then his headaches began.

Then his sight went blurry.

Then he began to cough up blood.

Then he collapsed on the floor of his parents' home.

By the time it was diagnosed, Andrew Rounds' leukemia had progressed so far that doctors didn't figure he'd last more than a few weeks. Ever the soldier, he fought on for nine months.

But the nation for which he had gone to war did not fight by his side.

From the testing of chemical and biological weapons on soldiers and some civilians during the Cold War, to the vast use of toxic herbicides such as Agent Orange in Vietnam, to the unexplained illnesses suffered by veterans of the first war in Iraq, military service has sickened generation after generation of U.S. service members.

But when confronted with ill and dying veterans, the nation's military leaders have turned to a time-honored tradition: denial.

The dismissals are sometimes followed -- years and even decades later -- by acknowledgment that an ailment was linked to military service and belated offers of care and compensation. But for many veterans and their families, the help comes far too late.

Now, responding to a new generation of sick and dying veterans, government leaders say they've learned from past mistakes. "My interest is how do we change what has been the 40-year journey of Agent Orange, the 20-year journey of Gulf War Illness," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said in 2009.

But acknowledging the problem may be the easy part. Changing history won't be.

'Nobody is served by denial'
For years flames lapped at the sky, sending thick black plumes of smoke into the air across Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet even as the military's own environmental health experts quietly warned that the toxic fumes from open-air burn pits, located at every major U.S. base across the war zones, might sicken troops, military health officials stood their ground. The pits, they said, were not a danger.

But veterans groups, families and members of Congress pressed for a more thorough investigation as thousands of warfighters returned suffering from respiratory illnesses, skin diseases, cancers and blood diseases.

Finally, in August, a change from the top: In a meeting with military reporters, President Barack Obama pledged a thorough investigation into the pits.

"Nobody is served by denial or sweeping things under the rug," Obama said. "My overriding mandate to my agencies is that you get the best science possible, and then you make decisions on how we can protect our men and women in uniform."

Within months, the military's senior public health official, Craig Postlewaite, acknowledged it was "likely" that burn pit exposure was to blame for at least a small number of long-term illnesses. Later this year the Pentagon will launch a major study into the issue.

But the president's promise -- and the military's approach -- won't change a fundamental challenge with the way the government responds to its warriors' wounds.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a thick rulebook, called a "schedule for ratings," that tells officials how to compensate military members for hundreds of war injuries -- from the loss of a limb to a loss of hearing -- right down to the penny.

Federal lawmakers occasionally make changes to the schedule -- mandating, for instance, that the VA treat many veterans' injuries and illnesses as "service connected" if ailments are reported within a year after they leave service. But it has been 64 years since the schedule was thoroughly revised, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

And the rules don't cover those who get sick years after they served, or those who are waiting on science to confirm the link between their ailments and their service. And so, in many cases, VA bureaucrats have no choice but to deny veterans' claims.

That's what happened to Andrew Rounds.

'Sometimes things just happen'
Physicians at Oregon Health & Sciences University could tell Lisa Rounds a lot about her son's cancer -- for instance, that it was likely caused by environmental, rather than genetic factors. And they suspected that an exposure to toxic chemicals might be to blame. But they couldn't say for certain that it had been caused or aggravated by his service in Iraq -- and military service alone is not a guarantee of VA care.

So while VA officials tried to find a way to bring the 22-year-old combat veteran into the fold of the nation's largest government-run health care provider, they kept coming up empty.

"Thank God for the Oregon Health Plan," Lisa Rounds said. The state-run health safety net, intended for the working poor, covered her son's medical care for nine months until his death on Oct. 19, 2007. "I don't know what we would have done without it."

Lisa Rounds did her best to accept the VA's decision -- and tried to make peace with her son's death. "Sometimes things just happen," she said. "I just figured this was one of those things."

Then she learned of the burn pits. And soon she learned of other Iraq War veterans diagnosed with the same form of leukemia that took her son's life. Now, Rounds is convinced that her son wasn't a victim of chance, but a casualty of war.

"You look at all these other kids who are dying exactly the way Andy died, and it's obvious, right?" she asked. "What else could it be?"

From an epidemiological standpoint, however, the world is not so absolute. Although it is rare in younger adults, acute myeloid leukemia is the most common form of adult leukemia.

About 2 million American military members -- and hundreds of thousands of additional civilian contractors -- have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Understanding whether they become ill at a higher rate than those who have not served will take time and study.

"The epidemiology might be 10 or 20 years down the road before we can say, scientifically, 'Yes, this is a hazard,' " said Darrin Curtis, an environmental engineer and former Air Force officer who wrote a seminal memo to senior health officials warning of the risks of the burn pits in 2006. "What about the people who need help now? How many of them have to get sick for the government to stand up and take responsibility?"

'I look at the risk'
Curtis dislikes being called a whistleblower.

The Arkansas native was content in his low-profile role at Hill Air Force Base, in northern Utah, where his duties included evaluating health and safety hazards -- including potentially cancer-causing chemicals found underground in one base housing area. Although he supported the base commander's decision to remove the soil, at a cost of millions of dollars, he didn't think it was necessary.

"I'm not one of those people always out there saying the sky is falling," said Curtis, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering. "I look at the data, and I look at the risk. That's all I do."

But at Balad Air Base, in northern Iraq, Curtis found a public health disaster that could not be ignored. Each week, hundreds of tons of refuse -- including toxic chemicals, plastics, vehicle parts and medical waste -- were set ablaze in a 10-acre, open-air burn pit at the northern corner of the largest U.S. military base in the region.

The smoke plume was such a constant that software engineers writing a program to help pilots navigate onto the base made it part of the simulated skyline.

On most days at Balad, the air smelled like diesel fuel and tasted like burned rubber. When the desert winds blew the smoke south, medics would treat dozens of patients for what was often called "Iraqi Crud:" coughing up dark phlegm and troubled breathing.

Three months into his tour, Curtis wrote his memo calling the pit an "operational health risk" and warning it could cause immediate and chronic health problems. For thousands of service members who had fallen sick after returning from the war -- and who had no other way to account for their symptoms -- Curtis' warnings were a possible explanation. The memo was copied, faxed, e-mailed and even translated into Spanish.

But it didn't make its way into Emily Rainwater's hands. Not until she fell ill herself.

'You have leukemia'
No one forced Rainwater to go to war.

But when her supervisors at the Defense Contract Management Agency sought volunteers to track the billions of military dollars being spent in Iraq, she stepped forward. She wanted to help the people of Iraq. And she wanted to support her country.

By 2008, when Rainwater left Arizona for her first tour of duty in Iraq, many service members had seen the Curtis memo. As a civilian, she hadn't. She was well aware of the obvious dangers of going to Balad -- sometimes called "Mortaritaville" for the frequency of indirect fire attacks on the base. "But it didn't occur to me that I might get sick," Rainwater said.

Rainwater returned from her second deployment in 2009 feeling sore and tired. When she realized she couldn't sit in front of a computer monitor without feeling exhausted, she went to a hospital.

"The doctor came in and said, 'I know what's wrong with you and the news is not good,' " recalled Rainwater, who is 41 years old. "He said, 'You have leukemia,' then he gave me a big hug and he left."

Rainwater is now undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment at Tucson Medical Center.
Part of her Defense Department job includes overseeing contracts with companies disposing of waste in Iraq. The same contractors have been sued by some who believe they were sickened by exposure to burn pit smoke, so Rainwater doesn't feel it would be appropriate to speculate on the cause of her suffering.

But her sister, Mickey, is not so guarded.

"We're identical twins," Mickey Rainwater said. "We've always lived in the same cities and traveled to the same countries. The only difference is that I've been a smoker for 25 years and she's been to Iraq. And she has leukemia, and I'm just fine."

'For the rest of my life'
Florida doctors told Jill Wilkins she could take her time with the decision. But Wilkins knew what she needed to do. Just six days after her 51-year-old husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he was gone. It fell to her to pull the plug on his life support.

The date was April 1, 2008 -- April Fools Day.

"My husband was the one who always remembered important dates. I never could," Wilkins said. "So I figured if I did it on that day, I would never forget the day he died."
Kevin Wilkins died 363 days after he returned home from his second tour of duty in the Middle East, where he helped ferry critically wounded patients from the war zones with the 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron. His wife didn't know it at the time, but if she had waited another three days, it may have been more difficult for her family to access VA death benefits. Her claim would have fallen outside the one-year window when the military assumes an illness is service-related.

In November, she began collecting stories on a Facebook page devoted to those exposed to burn pits during their tours of duty, including dozens of veterans who have suffered or died from rare forms of blood disorders and cancer. Many were stationed in Balad, as her husband was during his first tour. And many have reported cases of the same form of leukemia that sickened Rainwater and killed Andrew Rounds.

"It can't all be coincidence," said one of the site's members, JoAnne Och, whose son Steven also died of acute myeloid leukemia shortly after returning from Balad. "For one thing, you don't send sick troops over there, so for all of these people to be coming home with these very serious problems, there's something causing that."

'I came back like this.'
Utah National Guard soldier Casey Malmborg breathed in the smoke and fumes at Balad for nearly a year. When he returned from Iraq in 2007, Army doctors warned him it might take a while to adjust to clean air. But months later, Malmborg was still fighting for breath.

For the first time ever he failed an Army fitness test. "It was like I was suffocating," he said.

Today, the young sergeant is on three medications to control his symptoms, which National Guard medical officials have given him a year to overcome. Malmborg believes he has risen to the challenge, but on some cold winter days, "I wake up in the morning and I'm already wheezing," he said.

Malmborg recognizes that many soldiers return from war in far worse shape. Nonetheless, he knows his life has been inexorably changed.

"I went on the deployment as a healthy 19-year-old," he said. "Now I'm stuck with asthma for the rest of my life."

Anthony Roles also was healthy when he left for Iraq in 2003. Shortly after he returned home, his debilitating headaches began.

The Air Force sergeant was eventually diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a rare condition in which bone marrow produces too many blood cells. The condition can cause heart attacks -- Roles had his first at age 30 -- and is sometimes a precursor to leukemia.

"I went to Iraq with no problems whatsoever," Roles said. "I came back like this."

Against his wishes, he was discharged from the military. But since Roles was still working for the U.S. Air Force as a recruiter in Florida when he fell ill, his medical expenses have been covered by the service. For that, he feels fortunate, even as he suffers.

But many others who believe they were sickened by their service will have to wait for science and government bureaucracy to link their conditions to their service. And some will die before that happens.

'A grateful nation.'
If Andrew Rounds had been wounded in combat, the Army would have provided him medical care from some of the best doctors in the world. And it would have compensated him for his injuries.

If he had been killed in battle, the Army would have sent two officers to his mother's door. It would have assigned her family a bereavement support liaison. It would have paid her a "death gratuity" and helped her slice through any red tape for her son's service life insurance payment. And it would have delivered a letter from the president of the United States, acknowledging his sacrifice "on behalf of a grateful nation."

Lisa Rounds got none of that. But she's not complaining. The VA did pay for something.

"We got a nice funeral and a headstone," she said. "That was a kind gesture."

Part Three: The Proving Ground
Jan. 18, 2010

Even those who know the area best won't step far off the narrow, muddy road that runs through the center of the desolate toxic dump at Utah's Deseret Chemical Depot.

It's been more than 30 years since the U.S. Army used this vast scrubland, known as the East Demilitarization Area, to dispose of a deadly arsenal of chemical and conventional munitions -- but the military still hasn't figured out how to clean up its mess.

The Defense Department does acknowledge the disaster, just as it has belatedly admitted having tested a gamut of chemical and biological weapons on military members in Utah's vast west desert during the Cold War. But the U.S. government insists that the tests have contributed to long-term illnesses in only a handful of exposed service members. And that has led the Department of Veterans Affairs to deny almost all claims for care and compensation made by those who believe they got sick as a result of the tests.

Although the Cold War was fought mainly by proxy and politicians, it was not without its casualties: Many died while waiting on the military to so much as acknowledge its secret programs.

Now, Dwight Bunn fears he might also slip away before the government takes responsibility for its actions.

The former soldier is sick. And he wants to know why.

'Don't worry, this stuff won't hurt you.'
Bunn was 21 years old when he arrived at Dugway Proving Ground, just over the snow-dusted hills from the Deseret demilitarization dump, in Tooele County. The official mission of his unit, the 45th Chemical Company, was to create smoke screens for infantry assaults. But in the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the Army had other uses for the group.

Among the company's secretive duties: Helping to dispose of the carcasses of animals used in chemical weapons tests.

Starting in the 1940s and continuing through the 1970s, the Army tested and disposed of thousands of tons of chemical and biological agents in sparsely populated Utah, including munitions loaded with sarin, VX, mustard, tabun and various hallucinogens.

Bunn, whose tour of duty in Utah began as the U.S. was beginning to build up its forces in Vietnam, also believes members of his unit were exposed to Agent Orange. "They told us, 'Don't worry, this stuff won't hurt you. It's a defoliant and so it will kill the trees, but you'll be fine," he said.

Bunn said military officials have told him they can find no record of Utah tests involving the toxic herbicide, which has been linked to dozens of medical conditions.

But for the Washington state man, the government's denials are less than convincing. After all, the military spent years disavowing the tests altogether. The denials ended in the late 1990s, but the government has offered medical care and compensation only to those who can establish, by a preponderance of evidence, their illnesses were the result of exposure.

As of 2008, just 39 of 614 benefit claims filed by veterans in relation to tests nationwide had been approved.

Bunn, who suffers from restrictive lung disease, has asked the VA for care and compensation for his condition, in which tissue surrounding the lungs hardens and makes it difficult to exhale.
But the 65-year-old veteran's claim has been denied. And he's infuriated by a government that kept the program secret for decades, and now expects him and others to be able to offer proof that the tests made them sick.

"I've been exposed to a hell of a lot of stuff," he said. "Can I say definitively what did this to me? No I can't. But I've never lied about it. The military -- it conducted tests on humans and didn't acknowledge it. That's not right."

'Blow it up and burn it.'
Long rows of wooden pallets, stacked with bomb casings and ragged pieces of shrapnel, memorialize the Army's last attempt to clean up the Deseret demilitarization dump. The inefficient bomb-by-bomb effort was abandoned in the 1980s when military leaders realized it was too dangerous to continue.

"They just walked away," said Troy Johnson, Deseret's environmental program manager.
It's hard to understand why they even started. Just to the south of Deseret's colossal, modern weapons incinerator, the charred shells of nearly 60,000 mortars form an artificial bluff hundreds of feet across. Some of the bombs are believed to be filled with the hardened remnants of mustard agent.

Not far away, ditches the size of swimming pools are filled with paint cans, fire extinguishers, oil drums, tear gas canisters and cluster bombs. Unexploded ordnance litters the ground.
When a lightning fire blazed through Deseret in 1999, explosions sent white smoke into the air as long-discarded phosphorus grenades were ignited. In some areas, the soil has a green hue; military environmental experts believe that's where napalm was dumped.

The toxic disaster area covers thousands of acres.

"It was perfectly acceptable, back then, to just take this stuff out here, blow it up and burn it," Johnson said. "Today, when we discard of these weapons, we have to be 99.999 -- and then some more nines -- percent clean. Back then, out here, they simply lit a match."

'You're supposed to be obedient'
David Davidson can't say definitively that he was sickened by his exposure to mass destruction munitions at Dugway -- but he can't say he wasn't either.

"The question is: Who knows?" said Davidson, who suffers from several types of cancer, kidney failure and heart disease and undergoes 12 hours of dialysis each week. "All I know is that I have a list of things wrong with me, but I've never been given a list of the things I was exposed to."

The VA has denied the 73-year-old veteran's requests for care.

The Army asserts it tested biological and chemical agents on "volunteer human subjects." But Davidson -- who arrived at Dugway in 1961 -- takes issue with the notion that the tests were in any way voluntary.

"I was a PFC -- a private first class," Davidson said. "You know what that means? That means I did anything they told me to do."

Once, Davidson recalled, he and other soldiers were packed into the back of an M35 cargo truck and driven into the desert, where a grid had been set up with stakes and string. "They stood us all out there, each at a different distance from where they were going to set off an explosion and told us to stick it out as the gas went off. Then we were supposed to come back and tell them how it affected us."

Davidson doesn't know what the gas was, but it created "a big fog" and sent him to his knees, gasping for breath.

"It's interesting that they would do such a thing," he said. "But when you're in the military, you're supposed to be obedient, and I did what I was told."

'They said this never happened.'
For decades, military leaders remained silent about "Project 112," a slew of tests overseen by the Army's Deseret Test Center in Salt Lake City. Beginning in the 1960s, the program tested chemical and biological agents, including VX, sarin and e. Coli, on unknowing military personnel.

When the tests were finally acknowledged, the Defense Department agreed to help the VA track down those who were exposed. But in a report issued in 2008, the General Accountability Office scolded the military for its lackluster effort.

According to the report, the military arbitrarily ended its attempts to find victims in 2003 -- even as some veteran advocates were finding hundreds of others whose illnesses might have been caused or aggravated by their exposure.

The GAO report didn't surprise Douglas Rosinski, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented a group of veterans that helped force an end to years of Pentagon silence about the tests.

"For 40 years, they said this never happened," Rosinski said. "I would be surprised if the government was still being anything other than absolutely reluctant."

Michael Kilpatrick, director of strategic communications for the Military Health System, said a renewed effort to locate service members exposed to chemical and biological testing will likely conclude in 2011.

More than 60 years after the testing began, Kilpatrick said, the government is still investigating "what exposures each individual may have had and to evaluate each individual's current health."
In the meantime, he said, "these individuals are eligible for an evaluation by the VA."

And, for most, that's all they'll get.

Meanwhile, veterans who were exposed to the tests are fading into history. Bunn, the former soldier who was assigned to pick up animal carcasses, knows of just one other man from his unit who is still alive. "And the last time I spoke with him, he was having trouble remembering much about what happened out there."

Ultimately, Bunn said, the human evidence of the tests will be gone. "All that will be left is the desert we used to stomp around in," he said.