Burn pits: Human waste. Feces. Trash. Plastic. Batteries. Medical waste and supplies. Body parts. Yes, body parts. Dead animals. Chemicals. Paint. Tires. Anything and everything not wanted or used anymore. Burn it all. Pour diesel fuel on it, and light a match. Anyone would agree that this is quite the cocktail, with a very disturbing mix.

For everyone who has ever been to Iraq or Afghanistan, or who has a family member or friend who served, burn pits are not a secret. It’s extremely common knowledge. Everyone knows they suck and were a terrible aspect of any deployment.

What is a secret, shockingly enough, is how the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) is handling the severe health issues many veterans experience as a result of these burn pits. The VA is denying coverage to the vast majority of veterans who submit health claims as a result of constant and prolonged exposure to the toxic nature of burn pits.

In fact, the number of denied claims is quite high. According to data obtained from the VA by Military.com, as of March 31, the VA had denied 72 percent of burn pit claims.

 

The Problem With Jon Stewart

After a hiatus from cable and comedy TV, comedian and TV host Jon Stewart is back. He just launched a new show on Apple TV, The Problem With Jon Stewart. The first episode aired on September 30, 2021. What was that first episode about? Burn Pits and Veteran healthcare. It was titled: The Problem with War: Burn Pits and Sick Veterans.

To his great credit, burn pits and the health issues surrounding their use, have been something Jon Stewart has been working on, and advocating for years. God bless him for it. Just like the work he has done with First Responders, and those associated with the clean-up in New York City after 9/11, he’s trying to get the same care and attention to veterans with burn pit exposure.

The reality is that most of us have been exposed. Every veteran who has spent any amount of time on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or smaller firebase, has more than likely been exposed. In addition, troops who lived near the large burn pits or who worked those burn pits were significantly exposed. Having personally dealt with constant and chronic rhinitis and even sinusitis, it looks like now, finally, I possibly have an explanation.

 

Pentagon Has Known for Years That Burn Pits Are Dangerous

What is also no secret, is that the Department of Defense has known for years that burn pits are toxic and extremely dangerous. As quoted by Jon Stewart in his episode, the CENTCOM Contingency Environmental Guidance from 2009, states “…burn pits inherently create health issues and should be terminated as soon as practical, in order to protect the life, health, and safety of USCENTCOM and coalition personnel.”

The Problem with Jon Stewart burn pits
The Problem with Jon Stewart (Apple TV)

The VA, also as quoted by Jon Stewart, said in a VA Environmental Hazards Training Letter in 2010, that “The air sampling performed at Balad and discussed in an unclassified 2008 assessment tested and detected all of the following: (1) Particulate matter; (2) Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons; (3) Volatile Organic compounds and (4) Toxic Organic Halogenated Dioxins and Furans (dioxins).” Dioxins, are also found in Agent Orange, the herbicide used in Vietnam to kill jungle vegetation.

Just like with Agent Orange after Vietnam, veterans today are facing severe health issues as a result of these toxins and chemicals. The exposure is directly a result of DoD-mandated practices and procedures.

Burn Pits toxicity
The Problem with Jon Stewart (Apple TV)

 

What Is the Issue and Why the Delays and Denials?

At the very beginning of the episode, Steward poses a very logical question. “Supporting the troops is one thing Americans seem to agree on—but why are so many Veterans struggling to receive the care they need?” Given the polarized nature of the country right now, and the highly partisan divide on so many issues, why is this issue not getting the traction and attention that it needs?

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There is a solution. And there is a cause. Check out below this excerpt of the episode from The Problem With Jon Stewart, in which Jon Stewart interviews the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough.

What started off as a very easy-going conversation, where VA Secretary McDonough probably thought he was going to have an easy interview, clearly became something entirely different. He even gets heated as Jon Stewart starts to hold his feet to the fire. What is the issue and what is the hold up to the solution? Money. And frankly, business as usual for the VA.

By way of comparison, as an example: between 2011-2014 the DoD spent $294 million on erectile dysfunction medicine. The 2021 budget for the VA Burn Pit Center of Excellence, is $7.5 million. While we can argue the merits of helping guys with erectile dysfunction (it sucks when you want to get your groove on) people don’t die from it. The paltry budget for burn pit health-related issues, however, shows this issue is simply not a priority.

 

‘Delay, Deny, Hope You Die’

In addition to the above episode, I highly recommend the documentary Delay, Deny, Hope you Die. Released in 2017, this documentary tells the story of veterans who are currently dealing and struggling with the issue of burn pits and VA medical care. Their stories are shocking, emotional, and heart-breaking.

The title is quite appropriate. That is the feeling that many veterans have regarding the VA healthcare process. It is just assumed by most people that veterans have instant access to healthcare for the rest of their lives. They served and paid the price for our country, so why wouldn’t they?

However, it’s often very difficult for veterans to get the mental, emotional, and physical healthcare they need. “Delay, deny, hope you die” has unfortunately been a common phrase within the veteran community.

Similar to the semi-joking phrase also associated with the government “admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations,” it seems it’s just easier to pretend the issue does not exist, and that it will go away — if it is ignored. It is cheaper for the government if veterans die, of course. Perhaps the feeling is that they already spent enough, the job is done, so why keep spending more?

 

Fix the VA… NOW

Any government official who denies any serious and significant claim from a veteran should be fired. I would also go as far as to recommend criminal action. It’s despicable and unreasonable. How anyone working in the VA, whose job is to care for these people, can in good faith think these issues are unrelated or undeserving of care and benefits, is baffling.

President Biden has even suggested his son Beau, who served in Iraq as an Army officer, contracted his severe case of glioblastoma brain cancer, as a result of burn pits. Biden pledged help for veterans with burn pit health issues on the presidential campaign trail, but up to this point, that help has not materialized.

What is more baffling, is why the VA has been broken for so many years, across so many presidential administrations, and lead with such ineptitude although it has the second-largest budget to any other government agency, behind the DoD.

The most sophisticated, advanced, and well-financed military the world has ever seen is really good at waging war. It seems, however, it has no idea how to end a war. Even more, it has no idea — and no will — to take care of its own, who did all the work.

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