Dying veteran targets burn pits as source of cancer

Updated: Jun. 22, 2021 at 8:57 AM EDT
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(CNN) - At just 35 years old, veteran Wesley Black is picking out his coffin.

He said the cancer that will kill him was caused by inhaling fumes from burning trash while deployed overseas, and thousands of other veterans are saying the same.

“These are memorial bracelets of all of my friends who died. Steve DeLuzio and Tristan Southworth were killed in Afghanistan on the same day. And Steve actually died in my arms,” Black said.

You probably can’t tell by looking at him, but Black, a retired staff sergeant, is about to die himself.

“I could be dead tomorrow,” he said. “I could live another six months. No one knows, it really all just depends on how my body responds to the oral chemotherapy and just how much more I can squeeze out of the stone.”

Black has terminal colon cancer.

After surviving combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard, receiving a Purple Heart, it’s smoldering trash from massive burn pits on U.S. military bases - sometimes acres in size - that will kill him.

“Soldiers generate a lot of trash. Metals, plastics, electronics, medical waste, uniforms, anything and everything that can be burned was thrown into the trash dumps, then coated in diesel fuel and lit on fire,” he said.

In eastern Afghanistan, the burn pit on the combat outpost where he served was located just 150 feet from the front gate, Black said.

“If you were the poor sucker standing gate guard when that burn pit was lit and the wind was blowing into the main gate, you’d be standing in the smoke for eight to 12 hours a day,” he said.

It was just one of at least 230 burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a recent survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 86% of vets from the two wars report exposure to burn pits.

Almost 9 in 10 of those think they have related symptoms.

“I thought I was on Easy Street. I was ready to chase my wife and son around,” Black said.

He and his wife had just had a baby and bought a house.

Black was beginning a career as a firefighter in their quiet Vermont town.

After years of symptoms and a diagnosis from an outside oncologist that linked his cancer to burn pits, they are planning his funeral.

“My wife and I had to go to a funeral home and do the arrangements,” he said.

As the post 9/11 wars come to an end in the coming months, burn pit exposure threatens to kill more veterans than combat did.

Concerns about their plight extend all the way to the White House, where President Joe Biden, as a candidate, pointed to burn pits as the likely cause of his son Beau’s death from cancer in 2015.

“He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go,” Biden said. “Because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with Stage Four glioblastoma.”

President Barack Obama signed the burn pit registry into law, so veterans could document their exposure. More than 200,000 have signed up.

President Donald Trump signed a law that, in part, planned to phase out burn pits and require the Pentagon to pinpoint where they have been used so the information can be cross-referenced with sick vets.

But the Department of Veterans Affairs has only approved about a fifth of related disability claims for fewer than 3,000 vets.

Comedian turned activist Jon Stewart is now urging congress to protect more exposed veterans after his success helping Sept. 11 first responders secure compensation.

“Defense contractors can’t view the U.S. Congress as Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory while vets are back there like Oliver with a bowl of gruel saying ‘Please sir, may I have some more?’” Stewart said.

This is certainly how Black feels.

“I’m kind of like the canary in the coal mine. I’m screaming my head off trying to raise this issue of awareness,” he said. “It’s too late for me, but its not too late for the next veteran that walks down the hall of the VA. We have a chance right now to get ahead of that ball. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

For now, Black holds on for his wife and his son.

“Just spending time with him, building memories that I hope in 20 years he has those memories of me. You know, spending time with my wife and just telling her every day that I love her,” he said.

He fights one day at a time for them.

“I’m just a dumb Irish kid from Boston,” Black said. “All I know how to do is fight. Cancer’s going to win, but it’s going to be one hell of a war of attrition.”

The VA granted Black 100% coverage for his service-related illness, but as recently as last year, its website said, “Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”

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