The moment I pushed open the plywood door to exit the Tactical Operation Center (TOC), I knew instantly something was bad in the air. The particles in the night air were like a thick dusty like snow, covering everything in a thin coating of fine, powdered ash. As I made my way through it I took pictures, saying to myself, who knows how this could affect a person.
Eventually, I would learn. That was during my 2012-2013 deployment at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Azizullah, Afghanistan.
The first symptoms started about a month after my deployment. I noticed random muscle movements during physical training such as my right leg kicking out to the right. There was also increased muscle weakness even though I increased weight lifting to compensate. Because I was in my 40s, I thought it was age catching up with me or arthritis. I was mistaken.
In 2014, after taking Company Command in recruiting in Johnson City Tennessee, I noticed my issues with weakness, sensations, muscle cramps and involuntary movement became more prominent.
During physical training I would grow more stiff and shaky. I knew something was terribly wrong when, for the first time in my military career, I didn’t just slow down when I ran, but actually stopped when my hip seized up. When I would try to grab a weight bar, my hands would have sudden weakness and cramped when exerted. I was mystified as to what it might be.
Because I was in a recruiting command, I was in a remote area and went to civilian doctors. I went to my primary care physician who supported my concerns and sent me to a variety of specialists. My Orthopedist was the first one who said he believed it was neurological. The first neurologist I went to ran numerous blood, nerve and urine tests and an MRI to check for ALS, heavy metals and various other diseases for months. The neurologist found nothing and basically gave up and tried to send me to a physical therapist, which I refused because I knew I didn’t need pain pills or physical therapy.
Frustrated, I went back to my primary care physician and during the discussion shared a theory I had formed based upon my research on my symptoms. I had read an article about a man my age that had been working out in the gym and had the same symptoms and he had Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease but to get Parkinson’s at my age is very rare so he was hesitant to believe it could be that. He gave me a physical examination to check my movement and confirmed I had cogwheel rigidity and tremor so he prescribed a pill called levodopa to try as a trial and to let him know how it made me feel.
That night I took it and when I woke up, I felt better than I had in months! Upon reporting my improvement from the medicine, the primary care doctor sent me to a new neurologist who sent me to the University of Tennessee, which had just upgraded their DATSCAN test equipment, which is the newest technology used in the confirmation of Parkinson’s disease.
On my follow-up appointment in 2015, I was informed that the test showed bilateral brain cell death, consistent with those who have Parkinson’s disease. I was positive for Parkinson’s based on clinical observation, the fact that I responded well to levodopa and a confirmatory DATSCAN test. Due to my chemical exposure to burn pit ashes/fumes, the disease progression and my being rather young for Parkinson’s, I was diagnosed with Atypical Parkinson’s, also called Parkinson’s Plus.
Not long afterwards in 2015, I was diagnosed with severe Complex Apnea. Complex apnea means I have both obstructive apnea, which most people have when they snore, but also a rare type called Central Apnea where my brain doesn’t tell my autonomic system to keep breathing when I sleep, requiring me to wear a Bi-pap machine the rest of my life as I sleep. The machine forces my lungs to breath with negative pressure. Central apnea typically results from a brain disease/disorder.
Last week, I was diagnosed with local complex seizures which believed to be caused by the same brain damage that caused me to get Parkinson’s and central sleep apnea.
It is well documented that many plastics and man-made products, when burned, produce various toxic fumes which could have caused the brain damage and long term progressive disease. It doesn’t mean everyone who is exposed to the same toxin will have the same response either. Like smoking, some do not get sick, some get lung disease, some emphysema and another throat cancer. Not everyone reacts the same.
In the case of those I served with, out of our group of about 12 of us, three so far have been medically retired—two were in their 20s. One has Cerebral Ataxia and the other has seizures. All were exposed to the same fumes/ash and formed issues since 2012/13.
It seems that although the damage has already been done to many of us, the way to help future military personnel is not hard: stop using open-air burn pits and use incinerators.
The hard part today is for DOD officials as well as garrison and VA Doctors to give up their denial that these issues are not real and start listening to those that try to explain their issues but have difficulty doing so because the diseases are early onset.
Some military personnel are being pushed out of the military for malingering and not being listened to when they try to describe their issues. They are written off and given pain pills to cope, creating a whole generation of pain pill addicts.
Fortunately, my personal experience within my unit was very supportive and the VA process was very responsive to my situation, but I am the exception since I have heard from numerous others who described the torment they had to endure. Many Veterans are still being denied disability for their neurological disorders even though they have documentation showing they were exposed to not only burn pits but also fuels and solvents which are known to cause health issues.
Neurological disease takes time to progress and just as recently many are seeing alarming amounts of military dying of cancer, the next wave could be larger and more alarming: a tsunami of disabled and dying veterans with brain damage that dwarfs the number affected by Agent Orange.
It is too late to stop or outrun the tsunami. It’s already cresting over our heads.
Steven Rasberry (CPT) Med Ret, served in the US Army from 2009-2015 as a Chemical Officer. Units: 110th Chemical Battalion, Technical Escort, 4th Battalion 23d Infantry Regiment, and Nashville Recruiting Battalion. Deployment: Battle Captain, Kandahar Afghanistan 2012-2013.
You can follow him on twitter @steven_rasberry