In the heat of perhaps the most boisterous presidential campaign in American history, voters often hear White House hopefuls loudly proclaim their support for our active-duty soldiers and military veterans. As a Veteran of the US Army and Marines, this is gratifying to hear. But the acclaim these candidates shower on our troops would be far more convincing if they actually addressed one of the most critical issues facing Veterans today, namely the burgeoning health calamity caused by the burn pits, the open-air waste dumps at dozens of military bases throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, where tons of hazardous garbage was incinerated on a daily basis throughout most of the ongoing wars in those countries. As a result of breathing in fumes from these burn pits – where a witches’ brew of poisonous materials was thrown into the flames, including plastics, metals, medical waste, old munitions and even human body parts — over 60,000 U.S. Veterans have fallen ill with serious respiratory diseases and rare cancers.
A growing number of these patients are succumbing to these burn pit-related illnesses – among them, as I suggest in my new book, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, who died of brain cancer, after serving as a major in the Army National Guard at two of the most polluted bases in Iraq, Joint Base Balad and Camp Victory. Adding to the incendiary political nature of the burn pits disaster, most of these waste dumps were constructed and operated by KBR, the huge military contractor once owned by Halliburton, the company run by Dick Cheney before he became George W. Bush’s vice president.
Everything seems fair game in the current political season, including a candidate’s sexual endowment and bodily functions. But the burn pits – which one former Veterans Administration official has called “the Agent Orange scandal” of our day – is apparently too hot to touch. One reason for this reticence among the leading Republican candidates might be the fact that Haliburton is a major contributor to the Republican National committee as well as to Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. While sponging up money from big military contractors, Cruz and Rubio both voted to slash a VA funding bill that would have funded medical research into burn pit-related health problems.
Halliburton—which, along with its former subsidiary KBR, is currently the target of a class action lawsuit filed by many Veterans who claim they were sickened by the burn pits – has also donated thousands of dollars to both of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign runs. Neither Donald Trump, who effusively expresses his affection for our men and women in uniform, nor Bernie Sanders, former chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and a strong supporter of Veterans’ health and welfare, has taken campaign money from Halliburton or KBR. But even they have not yet seen fit to address the burn pits crisis.
Our field of would-be commanders-in-chief aren’t the only ones ignoring the burn pits disaster. The nation’s military leaders also refuse to acknowledge the growing health problem, just as they ignored the Agent Orange calamity until well over a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. The Pentagon and the VA have routinely rejected burn pit-related medical claims and in some cases even harassed soldiers and military contractor employees who push for compensation.
How many of our Veterans will have to die from the terrible diseases associated with the burn pits before our nation’s political and military leaders finally confront the problem? These are the young men and women who risked their lives for their country, the warriors whose service America claims to honor. And yet, after coming home with severe health problems, these brave men and women have been treated like waste, something to be disposed of.
Tens of thousands of Veterans struggle with burn pit-related illnesses, with little or no aid from the government that sent them into harm’s way. Their chronic, debilitating health problems are heaping financial and emotional stress on these Veterans and their families. Many of them are going broke trying to pay their medical bills and losing their homes to foreclosure. Families are falling apart. Young Veterans are dying in hospital beds, leaving huge medical debts for their grieving husbands, wives and children.
These Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should not be forced to wait years for help like Vietnam Vets were. They need help now.
Joseph Hickman, a former U.S. Marine and Army Sergeant, is the author of The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers, recently published by Skyhorse/Hot Books.