For the past 23 years, I have been writing about and fighting for better support of our military veterans and their families. In some instances, as many people probably know, I can get a wee bit strong on the subject and rarely except a “no” from someone who is not doing their utmost to support our heroes.
I’d like to select three veterans that required our support at one time or another for health issues, who failed in one fashion or another to get it when needed from America, as examples to explain why my contrariness is truly contrary.
First of all, there is Paul. He served in the Vietnam War as a young Army officer where he was highly decorated and severely wounded in combat. Returning to America to recover from his wounds, he found very little support for veterans while millions of citizens protested our country’s involvement in that war.
Additionally, despite Paul’s ongoing health issues, there was also little support for or known facts about the impact to the health of veterans from exposure to Agent Orange.
I am always surprised at how little today’s citizens know about this poison, particularly schoolchildren. Agent Orange was a blend of tactical herbicides the U.S. military sprayed from 1962 to 1971 during the Vietnam War to remove the leaves of trees and other dense tropical foliage providing enemy cover. Food crops were also destroyed that were being provided to the enemy.
The U.S. Department of Defense developed tactical herbicides specifically to be used in “combat operations” and were not commercial grade herbicides purchased from chemical companies and sent to Vietnam, but were contents of death.
More than 19 million gallons of various “rainbow” herbicide combinations were sprayed with various names, but Agent Orange was the combination the U.S. military used most often. The name “Agent Orange” came from the orange identifying stripe used on the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored.
Much of it contained a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin, a highly toxic and persistent organic pollutant linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities.
Agent Orange was sprayed at up to 20 times the concentration of the manufacturers recommendations for killing plants. It has been reported the chemical companies that produced the Vietnam-
era herbicides say they were not fully aware of how toxic the dioxin contaminant was while destroying 5 million acres of upland and mangrove forests and about 500,000 acres of crops, a total area nearly the size of Massachusetts.
After recovering from his wounds, Paul served for several more years, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, before being medically retired after having a number of health issues that would today be attributed to his Agent Orange exposure. Unfortunately, one of his many health issues was heart related (a common Agent Orange-related disease) and Paul died suddenly of cardiac arrest at 50 years of age in 1985.
I believe that occurred because of our country’s delays and failures in recognizing the impact of this terrible poison. In fact, it was not until 1991 when the Agent Orange Act was implemented that the Veterans Administration basically said Vietnam War veterans could obtain benefits for their related illnesses and a list of them was finally provided.
A long list and one that continues to receive additionally discovered (or accepted) diseases. But it was too late for Paul and I had to perform his military funeral service.
Let me tell you about David. He was a Marine for about 12 years before transferring to the Army and eventually completing military retirement with that branch after 20 years’ service. Despite those dozen years of Army service and with all due respect to Army personnel, David was through and through and through a Marine: hardnosed, family committed, dedicated to friends, a staunch community leader and a total supporter of America’s military presence in the world.
If you wanted something done, he got it done.
Unfortunately, David had been stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, while in the Marine Corps. From the 1950s through the 1980s, people living or working at that location were exposed to drinking water contaminated with industrial solvents, benzene and other chemicals. During this time, the people living on the base, military service members and civilians, ingested and bathed in water that had been contaminated with those chemicals from the base water treatment facilities and a dry-cleaning company in the local area.
Personnel were exposed to over 3,000 times the safe exposure limits of toxic chemicals.
Fifteen health conditions have been identified by the VA related to that exposure, one being cancer of the kidneys, and about 7 or 8 years ago David was diagnosed with that particular cancer.
As had many, many others who worked as civilians, were veteran’s family members, or military personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune. Falling ill, or dying, from their exposure. But it was not until the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 was passed could those exposed there obtain proper health care for their medical issues.
Over 30 years after the problem was identified and 60 years after exposure began.
David’s cancer spread rapidly to many other areas of his body and he was informed that his stage 4 condition was so serious that he may only have six months to a year at most to live. As I said previously, he was a tough Marine and he took on the disease in normal Marine fashion.
That six- to 12-month assessment was nearly eight years ago. Since then, he fought valiantly against death and, though living in Kentucky, began treatment at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee. It was a five-hour round trip drive.
Year after year after year, David drove himself to treatment, in fact making hundreds and hundreds of trips for specialized and sometimes experimental treatment, including surgeries. But, as the cancer continued to spread throughout his body, David heroically fought his last battle and passed away Jan. 26, 2021. I also performed his military funeral service.
Finally, John. Another Vietnam War veteran suffering from the health issues caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Over time, suffering a double cardiac bypass at 49 years of age, multiple small strokes, memory impairment and numerous heart stent implants along with countless related health problems.
Again, just as David did, fighting to simply live one more day. Then came the most devastating news, he was diagnosed with cancer. Weeks of radiation treatment, numerous medications needed for survival along with devastating effects to the body.
Remember the timeframe I previously mentioned about how long after the Vietnam War before our government acknowledged that, indeed, Agent Orange exposure was a cause for numerous diseases such as heart disease and cancer? If not, let me remind you it was 16 years after end of the war when America did so. Or, in other descriptive terms, 21 years after John served in combat.
Today’s veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield and other military conflicts face similar lack of support by our government. It is from burn pits.
These were locations where are military personnel operate in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Djibouti, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Red Sea. Locations where materials were placed in huge areas and fire was used for destruction of a number of things sometimes found in war, sometimes found in everyday life.
What was burned? Chemicals, paint, medical and human waste (including body parts), batteries, metal and aluminum cans, munitions and unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics, rubber, wood, and food waste.
How was it burned? Primarily using jet fuel, a poisonous accelerant that created clouds of black smoke that was being inhaled by our troops.
For example, Joint Base Balad, the largest U.S. base in Iraq had a burn pit operation as late as the summer of 2008, burning 147 tons of waste per day on 25 acres.
According to Leon Russell Keith, a military contractor stationed at Balad who testified at a Senate hearing in 2009, ash was everywhere, including on beds and clothes. He said the thick black smoke was even in the barracks and ash permanently stained sheets.
One soldier described the smoke as thick “like San Francisco fog.” The color of the smoke could be blue and black, or yellow and orange. However, it was mostly black and everyone inhaled and ingested it. It was absorbed by their skin.
Despite this obvious exposure and health situation, as late as July 2019 there were still 9 sanctioned burn pits in operations in Syria, Afghanistan and Egypt. Millions of dollars were spent on incinerators to properly dispose of the waste products, but many sat idle next to the active burn pits.
I have 2006 and 2007 copies of letters by commanders in the field at Balad acknowledging the burn pits were hazardous to the health of our military personnel. Some diseases believed to be caused by this exposure include cancer, skin lesions, leukemia, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular conditions, constrictive bronchiolitis, autoimmune disorders and Crohn’s disease.
Based upon the information I’ve outlined above regarding health issues from burn pits, you would think some type of legislative action would have been implemented to take care of the troops who are experiencing health issues from their exposure. Well, VA did start a website in 2014 “Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry” where those who believe they were exposed can register their names, dates of deployment, etc.
This is 13 years after our wars began in the Middle East. The VA’s official position is that “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure,” though advocates claim that is based more on a lack of tracking of what’s being burned and the health outcomes of those who are around them.
There are veterans filing for burn pit-related disability benefits but over 75% have been denied. There are some actions in Washington to help our exposed military personnel. The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act, was recently reintroduced by Senators Dan Sullivan, D-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.VA., both members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The measure would concede that troops serving in locations recognized by the VA Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry were exposed to toxins and eliminate some of barriers to filing VA claims.
Unfortunately, if passed, it does not immediately grant disability claims and Veterans would still need to provide evidence that their illnesses are linked to toxic exposure. According to a 2015 VA report, it is estimated that 3.5 million veterans had been exposed to burn pits.
What must be done to avoid the lack of health support situations to current veterans that was faced by veterans of the past like Paul, David and John? It requires your support and that of our government.
President Biden spoke at one time about how he believes exposure to burn pits contributed to the death of his eldest son, Beau Biden, who deployed with the Army National Guard to Balad Air Force Base in late 2008 and Camp Victory in Baghdad, both which made extensive use of burn pits to dispose of waste.
In 2013, Beau Biden was diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme, the most common form of brain cancer. He died 18 months later.
Hopefully, the president will follow through with his belief about Beau’s death and take action on the health impact of burn pits. You can encourage that effort by writing the president and demanding those exposed to burn pits receive deserved optimum healthcare and other deserved benefits.
I am asking you to step up and do your part by supporting our veterans with a letter-writing campaign to the President about burn pit health recognition. Or, send him a message on the White House website at www.whitehouse.gov/contact.
Being contrary once again, I won’t accept a “no” from you. Perhaps, then, we will avoid situations like that of Paul, David, John and Beau.
By the way, Paul is Lt. Col. Paul D. King, my older brother.
David is Master Sgt. David D. Stewart, my younger brother.
I am John.
God Bless America and our troops in harm’s way.
John Stewart is a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, disabled Vietnam War veteran and has been a veterans advocate for nearly three decades. In 2016 he was inducted into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame for his volunteer service.