The only surviving fight to die at home: Retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Black taking out his coffin at the age of 35

And today he has what he calls a good day.

“I could have died tomorrow. I could have lived another six months… It really just depends on how my body responds to oral chemotherapy, how much more I can squeeze out of the stone, Black told CNN in an interview. his house on Thursday

Black has terminal colon cancer that has spread throughout his body. He survived two combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard and has received numerous honors, including the Purple Heart.

While it is difficult to definitively link individual cases of cancer and the disorder to a specific cause, an oncologist outside the Veterans Affairs System, who reviewed Black’s case, determined that it was largely due to burn pits on US military bases. There is garbage smoldering from – sometimes acres in size – that will soon kill him.

“The soldiers generate a lot of garbage,” Black told CNN. “Metals, plastics, electronics, medical waste, your uniform – anything and everything that could be burned was thrown in a garbage dump and then coated in diesel fuel and set on fire.”

In Ramadi, Iraq, where Black served, he says there were several football fields the length of the burn pit. And at the remote war post where he served in eastern Afghanistan, Black recalls how there were pits of burn just 150 feet from the front gate.

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

Thousands of US service members have inhaled the carcinogenic haze of burn pit smoke just as he did.

a recent survey By Iraq and Afghanistan US veterans found that 86 percent of veterans from both conflicts reported being exposed to the toxic fumes of the burn pits. And 88% of those exposed said they were experiencing symptoms that could be related.

The VA acknowledges on its site that waste products disposed of in open burn pits include chemicals, paints, medical and human waste as well as munitions and petroleum products.

When Black retired medically in 2015 after being thrown from a Humvee in a roadside bomb attack, he thought he had survived the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“I thought I was on Easy Street. I was ready to pursue my wife and son for the rest of my life. Life was good,” Black said.

Then the pain and severe digestive problems began.

a death sentence

Black says he complained of severe symptoms to Veterans Affairs providers for years. But he says his cancer was not diagnosed until 2017.

The diagnosis was stage four colon cancer, a death sentence.

When Black learned that he would die, he had a new child. He and his wife had bought a house in a quiet Vermont town with a treehouse in the front. He started his career as a firefighter.

Last spring, in the final stages of his illness, Black retired from the fire department.

But when his former co-workers run the engine from their home, they turn on the lights and sirens, a local volunteer firefighter told CNN.

Now Black and his wife are planning a funeral, going to the local funeral home to pick up his coffin.

“It’s literally just a square pine box, and I was like the coffin I wanted,” Black told CNN. “My wife looked at me with this terrifying look like ‘Don’t you dare, don’t you dare me to face your whole family with this pine box’… but I said that’s what I want, that’s what I I want to be buried.”

The wife, as always, won.

As Black sought answers after his diagnosis, an oncologist outside the VA system linked his rare cancer to burn pit exposure.

The VA then provided Black with 100% disability coverage for illness related to his service. It was a victory. Twenty percent of burn pit-related claims have been filed, according to data provided by the VA.

That means the military will now pay for his funeral and the sleek silver coffin with the American flag wrapped on top.

Burn Pitts and Beau Biden

As the post-9/11 wars come to an end in the coming months, exposure to pit burning and other toxins threatens to kill many more veterans than had been fought in wars.

And the White House is fully aware of this problem.

As a candidate, President Joe Biden said he believed the burn pits may have killed his beloved son, Beau, who died of cancer in 2015.

“He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he felt he had an obligation to leave,” Biden told a Service Employees International Union conference in 2019. And because of the exposure to the burn pits, in my view – I can. Haven’t proven it yet – he came back with stage four glioblastoma.”

Biden reiterated this message at several campaign stops, vowing to vigorously research the long-term effects of burn pit exposure, while noting that he “can’t prove it yet.”

But burns have been on the legislative radar of the past two presidents, including bills signed into law that expand data on exposure.

In 2013, then-President Barack Obama signed the Burn Pit Registry into law, so that the VA could collect data on veterans’ risk for burn pits — even if they weren’t experiencing health problems at the time. High traffic affected the registry’s launch and continually interrupted the early years of its service.

There are now more than 200,000 names on that list – including Black.

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump signed a law that would, in part, eliminate burn pits and require the Defense Department to indicate where they have been used, so that the information could be referred to where sick veterans served.

The VA says the Defense Department has Close most burn pits at this point and is planning to close the remainder.

But the VA website in March 2020, under Trump, officially denied that burn pit exposure was harmful: “At this time, research has not shown evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.” ”

Today, the VA website acknowledges that the issue is being studied and those exposed “may be at greater risk for long-term health conditions.”

In an email to CNN on Sunday, Terrence Hayes, press secretary for Veterans Affairs, wrote: “The VA is fully committed to and leaning forward in this effort and working with Congress … and all other available scientific sources.” To fulfill the President’s promise to provide the world with first-class health care and access to the benefits that veterans need, and clearly deserve.”

Hayes urges veterans exposed and feeling ill due to potential toxic exposure to submit a claim, to sign up for the Burn Pit Registry.

“As more veterans do this, only helping us collect the information and research needed to provide the care they need.”

a dying veteran fights

Black is demanding more.

“They’re not doing enough. This is the long and short of it. There needs to be a set process to identify these issues and follow up on these issues,” Black told CNN. “if [the cancer] The earlier I was caught, the higher my survival rate would have been.”

Unable to defend himself, Black is sounding the alarm for other veterans, while pushing for additional screening of burn pit exposure and more proactive monitoring and treatment from VA providers.

“I’m like a canary in a coal mine screaming his head trying to raise awareness,” he told CNN. “It’s too late for me. But it’s not too late for the next veteran who walks into the halls of the VA and walks in and complains about signs and symptoms.”

On his bad days, when it’s hard to get out of bed, Black thinks about his wife and their five-year-old son. He uses as much strength as he can to run and play, if only for a few minutes, in the hope that his son will remember these moments.

“Spend time with him, making memories. I hope in 20 years he will have these memories,” Black said through toothy breath. “Spending time with my wife and just telling her every day that I love her.”

He talked about fighting for them and cried.

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

This story has been updated to reflect that while Black’s disease is determined to be caused by burn pits by an oncologist outside the VA system, it is often difficult to link individual cases of cancer to a specific cause.


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