Yesterday the United States celebrated Veterans Day. Instituted as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 — it was not until 1954 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first “Veterans Day Proclamation” — America stops to thank the men and women who served our country in battle. One would think that our nation’s soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen would have every form of assistance after they retire as a form of gratitude. The reality, however, is quite different.
As reported by the American Conservative, for more than a decade, Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans have been warning that their exposure to toxic burn pits in the war zone has been linked to cancer. This, in addition to documented irreversible respiratory illness, skin lesions, neurological disorders and more.
Now the evidence is pouring in. According to a new report by McClatchy news, the number of recent veterans diagnosed at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with various cancers has increased dramatically, and many are blaming the massive open-air pits, which were used to burn everything from batteries and tires, to medical waste and body parts, unfiltered, on U.S. bases.
McClatchy found that the rate of cancer treatments for veterans at Department of Veterans Affairs health care centers increased 61 percent for urinary cancers — which include bladder, kidney and ureter cancers — from fiscal year 2000 to 2018. The rate of blood cancer treatments — lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia — rose 18 percent in the same period. Liver and pancreatic cancer treatment rates increased 96 percent and prostate cancer treatment rates increased 23 percent.
When confronted with the assessments — which were based on all billing data for veteran visits involving a cancer diagnosis at VA medical facilities from fiscal year 2000 to 2018 (obtained through a FOIA request) — the agency said it might be an “overcount” and that an “internal registry” of cancer diagnoses might show a much less dramatic increase, if not an overall decrease in cases over time.
One needs to keep in mind that the VA and the Pentagon have been trying to play down the effects of burn pits since veterans started demanding answers 10 years ago. The same can be said of those who served during the first Gulf War. About 200,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War continue to suffer from Gulf War Illness (GWI), a set of symptoms including chronic pain, fatigue, and memory impairment caused by sarin chemical warfare agent, pesticides, and pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills meant to protect soldiers from nerve gas during deployment.
Decades later, these exposures may also be causing higher rates and earlier onset of chronic medical conditions in Gulf War veterans than their non-veteran peers, according to a new study coauthored by School of Public Health and School of Medicine researchers.
The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health as the current issue’s cover story, found Gulf War veterans reported high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, chronic bronchitis, and other chronic conditions at rates normally associated with people about a decade older than them. Veterans who reported being exposed to chemical warfare agents and taking PB pills had especially high rates of heart attack and diabetes.
Such disconcert for human life had also occurred during the Vietnam conflict. Between the years 1962 to 1971 U.S. forces sprayed more than 80 million liters of toxic defoliant over Southern Vietnam to destroy jungle and reveal the enemy hide outs. The substance contained the highly toxic chemical dioxin, which contaminated the soil and sediment, and has been linked to severe birth defects, cancers and mental and physical disabilities.
Vietnam says that 3 million people were exposed to Agent Orange, while the Vietnamese Red Cross says local studies show that as many as one million people now have disabilities or other health problems associated with the compound, including around 100,000 children. It was not until 1991 when President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Agent Orange Act, which mandated that some diseases associated with Agent Orange and other herbicides (including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcomas and chloracne) be treated as the result of wartime service. Even though the United States offers disability benefits to American veterans believed to have illnesses linked with Agent Orange, Vietnamese citizens have had little success in the fight for compensation.
The moral of the story is that the U.S. government has a habit of remaining silent on many controversial issues. Although necessary at times, it has been opaque when it has willfully put its own men and women in uniform at risk as if they were canon fodder or guinea pigs. These are human beings who have not only sacrificed their lives for our nation but for world peace, too. As reporter Kelley Beaucar Vlahos stated: “How pathetic that it might be burn pits or water contamination to blame. In both cases, the government was not protecting its own, and moved to cover it up when the truth began to emerge publicly. Just like Vietnam. Just like Persian Gulf. In the case of Vietnam vets suffering from Agent Orange, it was a long, hard road to recognition; for the Gulf War Illness sufferers, they are still waiting.”
Joseph Hickman, author of The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers, said: “The Department of Defense won’t admit that this is occurring and the VA does not do enough to assist service members because they are waiting on info from the DoD.” The message to our elected officials who continue to conceal this ongoing scandal and do nothing about it is: “Shame on you!”