I had a great visit earlier this week in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s always great to go back home, whether that’s Georgia or Rocky Top. While there, several folks quietly asked me, “How are we doing with the VA reform?”
Well, the good news is that now it’s easier to discipline and fire individuals, and we don’t hear the horror stories we did before.
Or perhaps the horror stories are just being squashed and kept hidden a little better?
It appears that each generation has a serious combat illness that has to be confronted. I remember when we laid to rest a dear friend and fellow motorcycle rider, the president of the Leathernecks MC in Palm Beach County, who was a Vietnam-era recon Marine, call sign “Blue.”
He was an exceptional man, a former recon Marine sniper, and just a wonderful Christian, a true American patriot. Sadly, over time, we watched the horrific effects of Agent Orange diminish his body and his quality of life, until it took his life.
During Operation Desert Storm, there was a major concern over the demolition of countless stocks of chemical weapons, and their residual effects on those of us who served. Due to my service in Iraq and Afghanistan, just like many others, I’m blacklisted from donating blood.
Many of us were exposed to tuberculosis in those combat zones. Now it seems that there’s another health threat to those of us who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan combat theaters of operation.
As reported by The American Conservative,
One look at Brian Alvarado and you wonder how he can still be alive. Especially when you get a glimpse at his pre-deployment photograph—a Marine in his service uniform, full-faced and ready for whatever war would dish out—and think, “is this really the same person?”
Unfortunately, yes, Alvarado served two tours 10 years ago, and for a time he patrolled “hell,” which is what the guys called the open air burn pits on major U.S. military installations like Air Base Balad in Iraq.
When he got home, according to his wife, he was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma (throat cancer) and began chemo and radiation in 2008. Today he can hardly speak and eats and drinks through a G-tube. His features are skeletal, his neck the size of man’s wrist. He is 5-foot-9 and weighs about 70 pounds.
He is one of thousands of U.S. military service members and contractors who say their proximity to the pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, which burned — unregulated, in the open air — hundreds of tons of solid waste a day, have left them with progressive health conditions, including respiratory failure, debilitating nerve damage, and rare forms of cancer.
“They gave us a gas mask, but it wasn’t for that. It was more for nuclear, biological chemicals. It was never mandatory for us to wear that.”
The veterans’ journey — from healthy soldiers to barely surviving, like Alvarado — has been captured in a new independent documentary, Delay, Deny, Hope You Die: How America Poisoned its Soldiers (the first part of that is a black slogan among vets, referring to the protracted dance with the VA over health claims), by director and producer Greg Lovett.
I can attest that, early in our deployment to Iraq in 2003, we used the burn pits to eliminate solid waste. I know that our battalion command sergeant major would have the troops detailed to burn pit duty, and we rotated.
What we used was diesel fuel to burn off the waste. We had no other means of disposal, as this was early, before any upgraded facilities were put in place. No, there were no environmental checklists other than to try and conduct the burn downwind from troop areas — but nothing could be certain.
In reading the entire article by Kelley Vlahos, we must be concerned that there could be a new Agent Orange generational illness that must not be dismissed by our Veterans Administration. This is why we need to make sure our veterans have the full ability to seek out medical treatment at ANY medical facility in the United States.
It’s unconscionable to think that this is potentially another combat zone-created illness that’s not being given the attention it requires. This is what we should see from a true reform of the Veterans Administration hospital system — a total focus on those illnesses, sickness or medical issues that are directly related to combat duty.
There’s no reason why veterans need to go to a VA facility for general medical attention. We must honor the promise made to our veterans. What has happened to Brian Alvarado is a continuing blight on our nation. When young people read his story, can they really believe that this nation will be there for them?
Our Congress needs to hold hearings on this subject and ascertain whether we still have a problem with wait lists in the VA. No veteran should have to “wait” for an appointment with the VA; their records should be electronic and accessible by any local civilian facility.
We need the very best oncologists to begin researching and studying the issue of burn pits and their effects. This can’t be the scourge of this next generation of combat veterans, just as Agent Orange was for Blue and his generation.
“There are real limits on what’s being done and most of what’s being done is outside the VA,” charged Anthony Hardie, a veteran and head of Veterans for Common Sense, in an interview with The American Conservative.
Hardie has been working as an advocate for Persian Gulf veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness, of which he’s one, and burn pit victims.
“The VA has done some positive things piecemeal, but overall the effort remains grossly inadequate,” Hardie said, “and as a result veterans are denied their claims (for burn pit) symptoms and are not able to get health care to deal with it.”
The mission of the United States Veterans Administration is simple: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise: ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
God bless you, Brian Alvarado.
[Learn more about Allen West’s vision for this nation in his book Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin’s Journey to Faith, Family and Freedom]