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Veterans are the Canary in the Coal Mine

Last week, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. were trapped in haze of polluted air. Canadian wildfires caused residents of these areas to seek shelter from the pollution and for many, to use their N95 masks to go about their day and breathe easier amidst the haze. In the D.C. metro area, we experienced a hazy fog so thick we could no longer see the iconic Washington Monument, the landmark we look to each morning on our way to work and on our morning runs, taking time to admire the breathtaking monument to our beloved Founding Father. We all took to social media to share pictures of the unprecedented event and while many just looked in awe and compared photos from cities like New York and Philadelphia that were also experiencing loss of visibility, others were having a sense of déjà vu. A friend of mine posted a photo of the smoky haze and a veteran on her page remarked that he could smell that photo. For many veterans, this event took us back to those days in Afghanistan and Iraq, living and working in a haze of smoke created by the burn pits the U.S. military used to rid our bases of everything from tires to human feces. Many of us knew the burn pits would cause us harm in the long run. We used to joke frequently that we would all meet again one day in the Operation Enduring Freedom Wing of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital. Many of us even wore medical masks while outdoors, many years before a pandemic would lead us all to wear masks to leave our homes. No one could have anticipated just how badly those burn pits would affect us in the long run. I was not surprised when I began having severe sinus issues and chronic bronchitis after serving just steps from a burn pit. I was, however, shocked to learn that those burn pits also caused Crohn’s disease and Fibromyalgia in my formerly healthy body. As a matter of fact, the burn pits caused many different autoimmune diseases and cancers that we never anticipated being diagnosed with. A list of just some of the conditions caused by burn pit exposure are brain cancer, GI cancer, kidney cancer, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, asthma, and pulmonary fibrosis. A quick visit to the VA website reveals many more conditions caused by the burn pits and those are just the ones currently recognized by the VA. There are many more conditions and we now know that the U.S. government poisoned an entire generation of veterans. My experiences are similar to many veterans, I deal with daily pain and suffer from so many upper respiratory infections that it severely impacts my quality of life. Fortunately, the U.S. government acknowledged their culpability and thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Rosie Lopez-Torres and Le Roy Torres who cofounded the Burn Pits Registry and celebrities like Jon Stewart who championed our cause, the VA has offered disability to the veterans suffering from lifelong diseases and for many, terminal diseases. I can also say that little bit of money each month and medical care is not worth the loss of my quality of life. So, what happens when large swaths of the U.S. population are poisoned by smoke from wildfires the way veterans were with burn pits? Climate scientists are predicting more frequent wildfires due to climate change. This means that more and more Americans will be exposed to the kind of toxic air pollution we experienced on the east coast last week. We may never know for certain if the U.S. government knew the burn pits were poisoning military servicemembers. We do know that they are aware of the toxicity of these kinds of burns after the PACT Act was passed and yet, our government is doing little to nothing to combat climate change. In a country lacking universal healthcare but having an abundance of chronic health conditions, what will we do when these fires cause life altering conditions in our citizens? Military veterans have often been treated as expendable throughout history but climate change may bring the toxic effects of smoke home to our civilians. There is no amount of money that can ensure you avoid the draft of smoke from burning wildfires and wealthy Americans may be just as susceptible to the effects as poorer Americans. There is currently a lawsuit in Montana addressing this very issue. A group of young people in Montana are suing the state alleging that the state has violated their constitutional right to “a clean and healthful environment.” This group of young people argue that the fossil fuel industry in Montana is harming them. I would argue that the lack of action by our politicians is harming everyone. Many of us have taken climate change into consideration when choosing where to live. While we may be able to escape rising waters and extreme weather, we can’t escape the wildfire smoke that moves by wind and doesn’t discriminate based on socio-economic status. We already know what toxic smoke can do to humans. Veterans are the canary in the coal mine. When will our leaders listen to the warnings and do something before millions of Americans are suffering in the same way veterans currently suffer from toxic exposure?

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