On Memorial Day, we take time to honor the sacrifices of service members who gave their lives in defense of their country.
In honoring these heroes, we tend to focus on those who died in battle. While extremely important, there is rarely a commemoration – or even public recognition – of the millions of American veterans who were seriously ill, and in some cases died, due to exposure to toxins during their service. service.
I became one of those veterans after being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and I’m not the only one.
Today, active duty American service members, veterans and their families are still exposed daily to deadly toxins and instead of caring for us, too many elected officials treat our lives as disposable even though they claim we honor for our sacrifice.
When I went to Vietnam, no one had told us about Agent Orange beforehand. The chemical is a “tactical herbicide” that was sprayed over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1962 and 1971. Agent Orange contains traces of dioxin, the same compound used to poison Ukrainian politician Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 .
Millions of U.S. service members and Vietnamese civilians were exposed, leading to birth defects, cancer, and a host of other serious health issues.
In my case, I was serving in Vietnam as part of an explosive ordnance disposal team, and we walked through areas where Agent Orange was sprayed several times a week.
As a result, I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a rare form of blood cancer. My condition is treatable, but not curable. There’s a chance it could turn into deadly leukemia, and I have to live with that.
It took 50 years for the US Department of Veterans Affairs to include my cancer on the approved Veterans Disability Award list, but I still have to fight tooth and nail to get treatment and compensation. It’s all too common for veterans suffering from toxic exposure.
The problem is getting worse
In the decades since the Vietnam War, the problem has only gotten worse – just look at the devastating impact that fireplaces have had on veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But toxic exposure doesn’t just happen in war zones and military bases — it happens in our homes, too.
PFAS – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often dubbed “eternal chemicals” – are a group of chemicals that the military has begun to use as firefighting foam.
Dupont and 3M told the Department of Defense that PFAS were safe, so it didn’t bother to check before exposing millions of people to this toxic and deadly chemical. This health crisis is already here: firefighters (veterans and civilians) were at greater risk than any other group, and they are already dying of strange cancers and hard-to-diagnose diseases until doctors realized they were exposed to PFAS.
This crisis has the potential to eclipse the Agent Orange problem. Troops have been on display overseas and on over 1,000 bases here in the United States. Yet the Department of Defense, which recognized PFAS as a problem in 1992, has not declared them a hazardous or toxic chemical. They are currently doing inspections and have started to clean up some bases, but it is painfully and unacceptably slow.
You can pay for the $600 blood test yourself to see if you’ve been exposed to PFAS (if your doctor will order it in the first place), but positive results won’t get you anywhere with the VA.
What we need is congressional action to constrain and fund the VA to fix this problem — but some elected officials are once again leaving veterans to fend for themselves.
There are currently several bills in Congress aimed at saving lives and supporting those who put their own lives on the line for our freedoms, including the Honor Our PACT Act, the Filthy Fifty Act, and the Clean Water for Military Act. Families.
These bills are blocked by US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the filibuster. This act is even more despicable, as McConnell and his colleagues are sure to claim to support fallen service members, veterans and their families around this holiday.
I served in Vietnam to fight for our country and our American Constitution. To me, “We the people” means everyone. This is not the America I fought for and not the America I want my grandchildren to grow up in.
So many veterans have served bravely, but returned home to find they had a ticking time bomb growing inside them. And far too many veterans have died without care or benefits, with their spouses and families fighting an indifferent bureaucracy.
If the parades and headlines of “honoring our dead” and “supporting our veterans” really mean something to you, then take action. To our elected officials: We urge you to live up to your demands to support veterans and pass these bills.
To our fellow citizens: call your senators and tell them the same thing: if they support veterans, they must pass these bills.
This Memorial Day, let us honor the military and our veterans not with words, but with deeds. It can’t wait, because thousands of lives are at stake, including mine.
Jim Sandoe is a U.S. Army veteran from Lancaster County and a state organizer for Common Defence, the nation’s largest progressive veterans group, with more than 300,000 supporters in all 50 states.