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The Agent Orange of the 9/11 Generation

Joe Biden has blamed burn pits for son Beau’s brain cancer. Now, veterans dying from the same exposure are hoping the president-elect acts quickly

Josh Sessoms, a 37-year-old former Marine, first arrived in Iraq in June 2006. He was healthy and strong, and despite the inherent danger in providing security to the unit that controlled most of the area north of Fallujah, the gravest danger to Sessoms’ health was within the confines of the American base. “We had a burn pit that was about 20-feet wide by 20-feet long,” he tells me. “We used that burn pit to burn almost anything that we could or could not burn — from batteries to oil to trash to electronics to leftover metal.”

Given the detrimental health effects that come from breathing in noxious fumes, military officials have long advised that burn pits only be used when absolutely necessary. But per a 2013 investigative report from The Verge, the federal government has been slow to limit their use despite the many veterans who have come forward over the last couple of decades to report long-term respiratory illness, cancer and other health issues due to being exposed to them. For that reason, burn pits are increasingly being referred to as “the Agent Orange of the post-9/11 generation.” 

Sessoms says he lived on two bases where burn pits seemed to be the only option for waste disposal. “[At the second camp,] we were a little bit away from the main part of the base, which unfortunately led to someone thinking it would be a good idea to put the camp’s burn pit directly across from where I worked and lived,” he explains. “They burned everything just like at the [first base], but now they included fuel, sewage, metal and whatever else they could get rid of.” As such, he and his fellow Marines had to breathe in the thick, noxious smoke “24/7, no matter what, with no protective masks at all.” 

He says he’s suffered debilitating respiratory issues ever since. “I have trouble breathing sometimes even though I try to keep in decent shape, but that doesn’t count the respiratory issues I have on a daily basis, which is I always feel like I have something in my lungs that needs to get out,” he tells me. “I have to cough more times than I would like, and yes, stuff does come out when I cough many times. So I’m really susceptible to respiratory infections.”

But despite hundreds of thousands of similar reports from other Gulf War veterans, the official position from the Department of Veterans Affairs is that the “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from [burn pit] exposure.” Veteran groups counter that this is because the Defense Department has failed to track any information about when and where massive burn pits occurred. And so, they’ve decided to take on that task themselves. Not only do they hope their maps can help soldiers track any possible exposure, they’re also aiming to increase awareness among vets who may be suffering from similar health problems without knowing that a burn pit had been near their base. 

On the r/veterans subreddit, threads abound from soldiers describing their variable symptoms. For example, ThkrthanaSnkr writes, “[I don’t know] if anyone is experiencing the same, but some symptoms I’ve been having is tachycardia, low O2 saturation 92-95, even though I’ve been told it’s within normal range and I’ve never been a smoker, and bouts of shortness of breath. Served in Iraq 2005 (burn pit a good distance) and Afghanistan 2010 (burn pit too close for comfort […] where we pretty much slept next to it).” 

In an official report on burn pits sent to Congress in April 2019, the Defense Department argues that “open burning remains a field expedient alternative to reduce waste volume and protect troops from disease.” (A lot of what’s being set ablaze is human waste as without the infrastructure for sewage, let alone running water, military bases abroad construct latrines with large buckets at the bottom to collect fecal matter, etc.) Moreover — and maybe more to the heart of the matter — implementing a new, less primitive solution would be too costly

In fairness, the VA is attempting to grow a registry of soldiers exposed to burn pit fumes, but given that vets are on the wrong side of the cost-benefit analysis, ex-military personnel are skeptical any real progress will get made. “I’ve been on the registry since 2015,” writes redditor RoyalN5 on r/Veterans. “I thought that I’d be informed of the implications of the possible effects of the burn pits on my health, or that they actually would track my health because I had serious concerns about how the fuck I got an auto immune disease from Afghanistan. … [But] the only thing that I ever received since I’ve been on it was an email last week telling me to be careful because of COVID. Trust me, it’s just a waste of time.”

The cynicism isn’t unfounded either — to date, Veterans Affairs is denying 78 percent of the 12,582 vets who have made disability claims due to toxic exposure from burn pits.

That said, the issue is finally starting to gain some momentum on the national stage. As of late September, Stars and Stripes reports that Democratic Congresswoman Elaine Luria and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have submitted a bill that would “streamline the process of obtaining VA benefits for burn-pit and toxic exposure.” And Jon Stewart, who once convinced Congress that 9/11 first responders needed health care and disability benefits after being exposed to burning, toxic fumes, has now taken on the same cause for vets.

“It turns out that the war-fighters that were sent to prosecute the battle based on the attack of 9/11 now suffer the same injuries and illnesses that the first responders suffer from and they’re getting the same cold shoulder,” Stewart said in a September press conference. “The only difference between the first responders at Ground Zero who were sick and dying from toxic exposure is that that was caused by a terrorist attack on our country; the veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering the same illnesses and the same toxic exposure because of the actions of our own government. Hundreds of thousands of veterans [come home sick] and are left to advocate on their own, and that’s unacceptable.” 

This weekend’s election of Joe Biden has offered a ray of hope, too. The President-elect has often pointed to the burn pits his son Beau was exposed to during his service time in Iraq as a potential cause for the glioblastoma brain cancer that killed him in 2015. Speaking to a Service Employees International Union convention last October, Biden explained that Beau “volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go […] and because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with stage four glioblastoma.” 

Biden has listed increased funding for burn-pit research and access to health care for any veterans exposed to them on his campaign website, but Sessoms says Biden must also make it a “day one” priority. “This is affecting people my age and causing us to die early,” he tells me. “I’ve seen and heard from more people with advanced cases of ‘rare cancer’ than I can count. So I really wish and hope that this is looked into sooner than Agent Orange was for Vietnam vets.”