Writer’s Note: This story was recently shared with me—and I asked if I could share this story with you all in the hopes that it would continue to raise awareness about the plight of so many veterans struggling with the Department of Veterans Affairs system. They graciously agreed—with a condition of anonymity to protect their loved one. So today, I’m honored and humbled to serve as this family’s voice. Pray for this veteran, his family, and all the thousands of other veterans suffering quietly for their service to this country.
I’ll never forget the day my son went off to war.
I remember at one moment after he left, I felt an intense urge to cry. Something was wrong and I couldn’t place it. My husband noticed my face and asked me—I told him I didn’t know what, but something was wrong with my son. I just felt it. I can’t explain it, but I felt it. It was like I was there, watching him get hurt and being completely helpless to do anything about it.
We stopped and prayed right then. We stopped and prayed every single time that dark feeling would come back.
What’s incredible is that often, a few days after having one of those feelings, we’d get a call from him and we’d find out that I had indeed, had the feeling right around the time he was in the middle of something intense. It could be a million things: thrown by an IED, trapped on a rooftop with a few other soldiers as the enemy closed in, surviving a bullet stopped by a small piece of metal—there were so many times we easily could have lost him. And every single time I got a feeling.
Little did I know that his struggle was just beginning. His service on the battlefield was just one part of the war; the rest would come fighting a system so bogged down, corrupt, and heartless that you literally couldn’t make it up if you tried.
Don’t get me wrong; we’re lucky. We got our soldier back. Even better, we got him back in one (physical) piece. But he came back broken. From the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the debilitating back and knee pain, from kidney failure and hearing loss—he left a 20-year-old and came back an old man.
You see, it wasn’t just the rigors of battle that scarred him; he spent his tour at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Balad, next to the infamous Balad burn pit.
The pit (one of hundreds in operation at the time) burned literally tons of waste night and day, emitting junk “laced with heavy metals and toxins — like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid — that are linked to serious health ailments.”
Military personnel have been coming back routinely suffering from the same issues. In fact, “‘nearly 100 percent’ of [Burn Pit 360’s] respondents complain of respiratory problems, with some also suffering from cancer, GI distress, and migraine headaches, among other ailments.”
Yup, you guessed it: My son suffers from chronic migraines, GI distress, kidney failure, gout (thanks to his now-poorly functioning kidneys), and now most recently—fungus on his lungs. He routinely suffers from respiratory issues.
Still, despite the copious evidence we presented to the V.A., all of the burn-pit related claims were denied, claiming there was no “service connection” for those ailments. Never mind the plume of thick, putrid smoke going up from the Balad burn pit that they were all breathing in every day. Never mind the thousands of veterans complaining of the exact same symptoms and ailments. No big deal.
Oh sure, they granted him some disability benefits for his chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, a tiny bit for his chronic thoracolumbar strain (from the IED blast that sent him flying into the roof of his MRAP vehicle, compressing his spine), and a little bit for the ringing in his ears.
We were told we could dispute the decision—and we did. That was three years ago, and nothing’s changed. Adding insult to injury, they won’t extend parental benefits to my son for his son because they claim they don’t have his information. We’ve sent his son’s social security number and corrected gender (the VA had him listed as a girl) in to no avail. Go figure.
In the meantime, he’s still sick. When it gets particularly bad, he’ll haul himself into the VA where he’ll wait for hours on end, sometimes leaving without treatment. On one occasion, he was sent to a private hospital after the VA facility couldn’t accommodate him. He was forced to pay nearly $4,000 out of pocket (the entirety of his savings for his upcoming wedding). When I asked him about getting reimbursed by the VA for it, he just laughed. To be certain, there’s a process he could pursue—but his forced laugh said it all.
Just before Thanksgiving this year, he went to the VA on a Friday evening to get treatment for bronchitis or pneumonia. For 17 hours he sat and lay on an exam room table in the ER, a room with no chair, no pillow – only another exam table and four walls. He had no sleep, no shower, and no food (they finally gave him a stale sandwich with a piece of frozen turkey, after he asked for something to eat). He kept being told that they would get a room for him, but it never materialized.
Even if they had gotten him a room, he was told it would be Monday before another doctor could see him. During the day, another patient was brought in, who lay all day going through detox from heroin addiction, “tearing his skin off,” my son said; this person was waiting for a bed as well. Meanwhile, my son’s urine and blood sample sat on the countertop nearly the entire time.
It was determined that he had possibly had a severe asthma attack, as well as fungus growing in his lungs. My son asked to be discharged several times (because he has a job to get back to and a young child to care for), but they insisted that he stay, because his condition was dangerous: low oxygen levels, low white blood cell count, and a small blood clot in his arm. Finally, he told doctor #5 that he was signing himself out.
To get his much-needed prescriptions, he has to wait for hours to see a doctor, where he gets a hand-written prescription, which he has to walk over to the pharmacy, where he has to wait for several more hours.
The VA building nearest my son is dirty, decrepit, and smells like “mildew, old people, and piss,” he told me. The waiting room chairs are stained and ragged. He told me, “It’s a hell-hole, Mom.” This from a veteran soldier who fought in the dirt and filth of battle in the desert for months, going on missions without showering for days, where his main concern was that his gun was clean and functional. He’s no wallflower.
Still, it’s either that—or pay for private care that he can’t always afford. This is how my son, a battle-weary infantry veteran, is treated.
My son could—like so many others exposed to the burn pits already have— very easily die. These issues will plague him for life, if they don’t actually take it.
I know that our president is completely involved in his preparations for January 20 … I hope that sometime in the future he will be able to read this story. I know he cares about our vets; I care about my son, my vet, and it is my prayer that he and his new administration can “drain the swamp” of the VA for all of them – for my son and for all the vets who need care and can’t get it.
Writer’s Note: As veterans continue to die from “respiratory fatigue to rare cancers and neurological disorders,” there have been ongoing lawsuits against the private contractor (KBR) responsible for the burn pits—though KBR has fought it, claiming they burned the waste at the military’s direction, and even “casting doubt on the veterans’ health claims,” even though a former KBR employee testified before Congress that “he personally witnessed KBR employees dump chemical decontamination materials, biomedical waste, plastics, oil, and tires into burn pits in violation of military regulations.”
There’s a bill sitting in committee in Congress to “establish a center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to open burn pits and other environmental exposures in Afghanistan or Iraq.”
Still, cries for help for the tens of thousands of affected soldiers has fallen on largely deaf ears. The VA does maintain what author Joseph Hickman calls “a failed [burn] registry, which, as Hickman continued, “doesn’t work,” and “it could take 20-30 years for someone to get assistance.” Not surprising, given the fact that the VA claims “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.” (as evidenced by this woman’s son’s denied claims.)
Interestingly, the burn pits were outlawed in 2009. Why exactly would the federal government ban them if they pose no real danger past temporary discomfort? It’s a thought.
We have a lot of problems to solve in this country—unemployment, sickeningly large debt, the rise of terror—our new president certainly has his work cut out for him. What say we start by helping the people who ensured we have a country to fight over and fix in the first place?
Now that’s a thought.
Mary Ramirez is a full-time writer, creator of www.afuturefree.com (a political commentary blog), and contributor to The Chris Salcedo Show (TheBlaze Radio Network, M-F, 3-5. ET). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree