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DOD’s toxic liabilities will adversely affect recruiting

AP Photo/Allen Breed
In this March 19, 2013 file photo, the globe and anchor stand at the entrance to Camp Lejeune, N.C. As many as 1 million people may have been exposed to toxic tap water at Camp Lejeune from August 1953 to December 1987.

A whopping $280 billion over 10 years — that’s the estimated cost of the recent PACT Act legislation addressing the wreckage caused to our service members by toxic exposure and war zone burn pits — the areas for disposing of human, medical, materiel and vehicular waste on the battlefield. This cost does not include potential liability from civil lawsuits for the 1 million people allegedly exposed to toxic water contamination at Camp Lejeune from August 1953 to December 1987, nor does it include the potential liability from lawsuits for the water contamination from the Red Hill fuel farm or the “forever chemical” known as PFAS.

To put this dollar amount into perspective, the PACT Act alone is almost enough to pay for half of the nuclear triad modernization. If an organization was hit with a bill this large, one would expect them to take immediate action to stop further exposures. However, in our system of government, the Department of Defense (DOD) will never see most of these bills. This is because the appropriations do not come out of DOD’s yearly funds, which effectively shields the department from the monetary consequences of its actions. While it is a moral imperative for our government to take care of those suffering from these past poisonings, the larger question is: What will we do to protect our military members and families from being poisoned in the future?

Almost as important for the DOD is assessing the impact on recruiting and current warfighting readiness. The military faces a deep recruiting crisis, and poisoning your employees and their families is not an effective recruiting technique. The DOD’s recent “propensity to serve” survey, which reflects data from the fall of 2021, shows that the propensity to serve by males has hit a low of 11 percent. When asked why they would not serve, the possibility of physical injury or death was in the top 10 reasons for 65 percent of respondents. While many may shrug this off as fear of combat, the number of potential recruits familiar with the long-term health effects of burn pits and other service-related illnesses is rapidly rising.

There are three things that DOD can do immediately to begin to address this ongoing crisis.

First, settle the Lejeune lawsuits quickly. In the PACT Act, Congress authorized over 1 million people to sue the military for the toxic exposure at Camp Lejeune. Litigation lawyers are running ads online, on television, and in print. The bombardment of these ads, along with a long public trial, could cause lasting damage to the entire military recruiting effort. And it is critical that lawmakers be prepared for sticker shock on the bill, which could total over $10 billion, if 10 percent of the affected million people receive $100,000 each.

Next, solve the war zone burn pits issue immediately. Besides the moral imperative of protecting military members, whatever the cost of alternatively disposing of the trash, it will be much less expensive than continued lawsuits and costs from future toxic exposure. It may not be easy to find a better solution for waste disposal on the battlefield, but we now know how deadly the release of burnt toxic gasses is. Investing research and development funding in healthy disposal methods will sustain troops longer, keep them healthier, and save lives and costs.

Lastly, the DOD must confront decades of loose environmental standards on its installations, such as not modernizing Hawaii’s fuel tanks or using PFAS. While the DOD, at this point, is immune from PFAS lawsuits, given that Congress only allowed lawsuits concerning Camp Lejeune, it may be only a matter of time before such lawsuits are authorized as well. How many more problems similar to those with the Red Hill fuel tanks exist within the DOD? And how can the department afford the negative publicity each time it exposes people to toxic chemicals? This will continue to be a slow drip that eats away at the credibility of military readiness.

For decades, the DOD has shielded itself in secrecy and sovereign immunity as a way to claim national security exemptions from ever-more stringent environmental standards. While this may have been expedient and less costly, the American people are no longer tolerant of environmental degradation and, as we are seeing in Hawaii, military families are no longer willing to accept being poisoned without speaking up. Perhaps this is one reason that the recent Military Family Advocacy Network survey showed a steep decline of military and veteran families recommending military life, a drop from 74.5 percent in 2019 to only 62.9 percent in 2021. 

Not being able to recruit military members puts our nation at risk, and if those in service won’t recommend the job, who will? To prevent future health and environmental disasters that harm military recruiting and ruin American lives, the DOD needs to immediately invest in serious research to solve the problem.

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) John Ferrari is the former director of program analysis and evaluation for the U.S. Army and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where James Mismash was a research assistant.

Tags burn pits Camp Lejeune water contamination Department of Defense military recruiting U.S. armed forces

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