Stranger Things, Platoon, and Jon Stewart
Toxic exposure is a cost of war, and it is past time to pay up
I love the Netflix series Stranger Things for many reasons. I love the nostalgia it stirs up for my 1980s childhood. I love the action, suspense, science fiction, and horror. I love the idea that kids on bicycles with walkie-talkies are mankind’s best hope for saving the world from apocalyptic evil. More than anything, I love the deeply human and therefore flawed and relatable characters. In particular, I identify with “Fat Rambo,” who is better known as Jim Hopper or just Hop, played by David Harbour. All he wants to be is a good dad to the show’s heroine, Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown.
The Duffer Brothers, the award-winning writers and creators of Stranger Things, did a great deed for our veterans with Jim’s backstory. Without giving away too many details about the series, Hop is a Vietnam Veteran who was part of a chemical unit responsible for mixing Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used to defoliate the jungles, so that the Viet Cong had no place to hide from our attacks. Our service members who were responsible for mixing or spraying the herbicide were lied to and told it was harmless. However, the toxic exposure experienced by the Vietnamese people and by many of our veterans left them sick. Even worse, many of the people exposed to Agent Orange ended up having miscarriages, stillbirths, or their children were born with serious birth defects. Hopper was no exception. After returning home from Vietnam, Jim and his wife Diane had a child named Sara who was born healthy, but then she tragically died at age seven from cancer caused by his toxic exposure. Even though this story is fiction, what happened to Sara is something that did happen for our toxic exposed veterans.
Oliver Stone’s Platoon won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director largely due to its gritty and ground truth portrayal of a soldier’s experience of the Vietnam War. Stone was able to write this masterpiece by drawing on his own time serving in combat in Vietnam. Stone earned a Bronze Star with combat valor for his heroic actions and two Purple Hearts for being wounded twice in combat. There is an unremarkable scene in the movie where Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris Taylor, returns to base camp after recovering from an enemy bullet that grazed his neck. His Sergeant orders him and a couple of his platoon mates to clean the “shitters” or field latrines. This is not the equivalent of scrubbing some tiled bathroom lined with stalls of sparkling white porcelain toilets. These are plywood boxes with a couple of wooden boards to sit on a few feet above a metal bucket, usually cut from a 55-gallon fuel drum. The job is dragging the buckets full of human urine and feces, that have been mixing and simmering in the hot sun for hours, out in to the open for “disposal.” While Stone does not show how they ultimately dispose of the human waste, I can tell you how it is done, from my own experience, as not much changed in forty plus years.
One of our forward operating bases in Iraq in 2003 was an Iraqi Guard armory that was built on top of a landfill. There were stray dogs everywhere digging up and eating the garbage buried in the ground. While we typically avoided digging pit latrines (deep holes in the ground to bury the human waste in) to keep from polluting the groundwater, this time we avoided it to keep from unearthing and exposing us to God-only-knows-what hazardous trash. So, we built bucket toilets and each day, some unlucky soul had to drag the buckets out in to the open, add diesel fuel, set the contents on fire, and stir them with a stick with a t-shirt tied to the end until all the waste was vaporized.
As you can imagine, this process released horrible toxins, in the form of particles of burnt fuel and feces, into the air. The burn barrels formed a dense black smoke in the air that we breathed. Since we ate and slept close to where we defecated, the toxins were ever present. We woke up to the acrid smell of burning diesel fuel mixed with piss and shit and we went to sleep with the smoke and stench still burning inside our nostrils. At the time, we did not think much about it. Like going weeks without showering or having a hot meal or sleeping in a bed, we believed that breathing this toxic air was just a cost of doing our jobs. It was just something we had to do. Like the soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange and told it was harmless, we had no idea there would be any long-term effects from this.
Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit organization focused on addressing the toxic wounds of war through advocacy, research, and outreach summarizes the post-9/11 damage that has been done:
During the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom wars, government contractors burned up to 227 metric tons of hazardous waste at forward operating bases using jet fuel in large ground pits. Items burned included: batteries, medical waste, amputated body parts, plastics, ammunition, human waste, animal carcasses, rubber, chemicals, & more. Exposure to these toxins, have caused a traumatic impact on the lives of our service members and their families. Some of the devastating health conditions suffered by Veterans exposed include: neurological disorders, pulmonary diseases, rare forms of cancer, and many unexplained symptoms. There have been thousands of deaths resulting from the invisible wounds of war.
Fastforward to today and finally the United States government has passed a bill to help our veterans exposed to toxins from the Vietnam War to the first Gulf War through all the post-9/11 wars. With bipartisan support, President Biden signed into law the Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act. During the signing ceremony, comedian Jon Stewart received a standing ovation for his tireless advocacy for our veterans suffering from toxic exposure and the use of his public platform to direct media attention to this issue and rally support for this legislation. While the PACT Act is “perhaps the largest health care and benefit expansion in VA history,” I am sad that it took so long (and for some too long) to get many of our veterans the help they desperately need and deserve. While I am grateful, I am also angry that it was Hollywood, not DC, who ultimately made sure our representatives did their jobs.
Next time we have a debt owed to the men and women who sacrificed it all for us, let’s not wait so long to pay the bill.