Veteran, 35, Is Dying From Burn Pit Exposure

He has terminal colon cancer after service in Iraq, Afghanistan
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 21, 2021 1:23 PM CDT
Veteran, 35, Is Dying From Burn Pit Exposure
A burn pit in Fallujah, Iraq, 2007.   (Cpl. Samuel Corum/Wikimedia Commons)

It's an issue that Jon Stewart says has an "incredible similarity" to the health problems suffered by 9/11 first responders—and it's killing 35-year-old retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Black. He has terminal colon cancer that doctors have linked to exposure to burn pits during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard. "Metals, plastics, electronics, medical waste, your uniform—anything and everything that could be burned was thrown in the trash dump and then coated in diesel fuel and lit on fire," he tells CNN. He says that at the combat base where he served in Afghanistan, the pit was just 150 feet from the front gate. "If you were the poor sucker standing gate guard when that burn pit was lit" and the wind blew toward the gate, he says, "you'd be standing in the smoke for upwards of eight to 12 hours."

Black says he complained of digestive issues to Veterans Affairs providers for years but a colonoscopy wasn't ordered until 2017, when the cancer was already terminal. After battling with VA authorities, Black was granted 100% disability coverage, though the VA has only granted around 20% of burn-pit related claims, and Black says they need to do far more to identify related issues and follow up on them sooner. Black says chemotherapy has stopped working and he could die any day. He is using what little strength he has left to play with his 5-year-old son—and to fight for the VA to do more to acknowledge the harmful effects of burn pit exposure. "While it may be too late for me, it might not be too late for the next soldier. But the VA must act now. No more delays. No more denials," he writes at USA Today. "No more hoping our veterans die so its problems can be swept under the rug."

(More burn pits stories.)

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