When he left the Marines after almost two years in Iraq, Mason Bass knew he would be living with traumatic memories for the rest of his life. He didn’t anticipate the lasting physical health problems.
In Iraq from 2008 until 2011, Bass, now 33, said he knows he was exposed to toxins. He suspects the bowel problems he developed later are connected — but it was an arduous process to convince the VA to cover his health care.
The Honoring Our PACT Act, signed into law earlier this month, is supposed to make that process easier for a range of conditions. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is now required to automatically cover care for conditions including several cancers and respiratory problems for veterans exposed to burn pits.
Bass is among the veterans whose conditions aren’t on that list. Veterans service organizations say the process of recognizing conditions of Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans connected to the burn pits and toxins could be slow, much like the still-growing realizations about the effects of Agent Orange exposure on Vietnam veterans.
In the meantime, veterans like Bass are frustrated.
“I can’t get any solid care because nobody knows why,” he said. “I’m still waiting for the ‘why.'”
Small and scrawny as a teenager, his classmates at Concord High said they couldn’t really picture Bass as a Marine. But he had been determined to join the military since 9/11. A week after graduation in 2007, Bass was in boot camp.
He trained as a mortarman and was in Iraq the next year, deployed with the First Battalion, Second Marines.
Conditions were rough, Bass said. His group lived in Humvees and semipermanent forward operating bases or FOBs. There was no air conditioning against the heat of the day, no heat in the cold desert nights. And there was near-constant smoke from the “burn pits” where all the garbage and waste were burned.
The day-to-day work varied, a mix of security and escort work, some humanitarian jobs like helping to conduct a census. It was just a job, he said, a job he wanted to do.
Bass was discharged in 2011, after traumatic events he prefers not to discuss. He knew he’d be dealing with the repercussions of trauma for years, maybe the rest of his life.
“What I wasn’t told was all the physical stuff I have to deal with, after the fact.”
Bass felt like an outsider in Concord the first few years he was home. His friends’ lives had moved on while he was gone. He felt he had to pretend the previous four years of his life hadn’t happened.
Connecting with other veterans through the VFW helped him find a new community. Bass now serves as the commander of the Concord post.
Work was another story. After years of military structure, Bass said sometimes he could get thrown off by more fluid civilian workplaces. He worked security, installed satellite dishes, sold computers and appliances. Nothing really stuck. He’d move on after a year or two. He was dealing with mental health issues and post-traumatic stress, but he managed.
Then around 2017, he said, Bass was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
He was 26. He was baffled. He had no family history of the condition that inflames the intestines. No earlier history of gastrointestinal issues. All he knew was he was in pain.
Bass said his mental health and physical health are connected. A tough post-traumatic stress episode can trigger a flare-up of the colitis. A flare-up brings on its own stresses.
Flare-ups could put him in the hospital for a week or more, and Bass said it was hard to find employers who could deal with that. About a year after he was diagnosed, Bass filed for disability.
Since then, Bass said too much of his time has been spent in doctors’ offices.
“I’ve had enough colonoscopies for probably half the city of Concord,” Bass said.
He has had to convince doctors he doesn’t want to be on serious pain medications and keeps hoping someone will find a more permanent fix. And hoping someone will figure out a cause.
“That had always been a question with no answer,” Bass said.
Even in civilians, the cause of ulcerative colitis is not known. But Bass is pretty sure his intestinal problems are connected to the toxins he was exposed to in Iraq.
“A lot of times these burn pits were next to our sleeping huts,” Bass said. “If you were there at the FOB, you didn’t have a choice. You’d inhale it.”
Bass said he also believes his unit also handled biological or chemical weapons. It has all left him damaged, he said.
“I’m a young guy. I’m 33,” Bass said. “I shouldn’t have all these issues.”
The PACT (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics) Act pledges to remove barriers to care for some veterans with illnesses stemming from burn pits. It was signed into law by President Joe Biden this month.
But Bass doesn’t think the bill covers nearly enough, and he wonders how much longer veterans like him will wait for their conditions to be officially recognized.
Is it enough?
“History kind of repeats itself after the wars,” said Paul Lloyd, state adjutant of the New Hampshire chapter of the VFW.
It took decades to understand the effects of Agent Orange. It has taken even longer to get Congress to authorize the VA to automatically accept responsibility for treating a range of conditions tied to Agent Orange. That list is still growing, almost 50 years after the end of the Vietnam War. In fact, part of the PACT Act dealt with Agent Orange issues for veterans who served in Southeast Asia during the conflict.
Now, Lloyd said, Desert Storm veterans and post-9/11 veterans are displaying a range of conditions lumped under “Gulf War syndrome,” potentially connected to burn pits, oil fires or other toxins.
Lloyd worries about the long-term impacts, even impacts on the children and grandchildren of service members. Lloyd said it’s possible we will never know for sure what causes “Gulf War syndrome” or how veterans like Bass found themselves with bowel problems.
John Graham, a Bedford state representative who a former New Hampshire department commander of the American Legion, said he was optimistic.
“There are always going to be some conditions that don’t get picked up initially,” he said.
Graham said he hopes the VA and other researchers will look more into what health concerns may be connected to burn pits, and in the coming months and years he hopes to see more conditions covered.
And even though many conditions were not made “presumptive” by the PACT Act, Graham said they can still be covered by the VA automatically, or “presumed” to be service-connected.
“Presumptive just means it’s real easy,” Graham said.
He expected the American Legion would keep pushing, just as the Legion has been pushing since the end of Vietnam to recognize more conditions tied to Agent Orange.
For Bass, dealing with the physical symptoms and his mental health and working through roadblock after roadblock of VA bureaucracy has left him frustrated, a little cynical, and worried about fellow veterans who have not caught the breaks he has.
Although Bass has been able to get the VA to cover his care, he worries about other veterans with similar conditions. He has met a lot of post-9/11 veterans who have developed ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or other stomach and bowel problems.
Ulcerative colitis isn’t on the list of “presumptive” conditions automatically covered for Iraq veterans, but, Bass pointed out, colon cancer is — and ulcerative colitis can sometimes lead to colon cancer. Will some veterans have to wait to get cancer before their care can be covered?
And what about the rest of Bass’ life?
He doesn’t want to be on disability forever, but for now, he doesn’t see a clear way forward.
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