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07 June 2015

Beau Biden Brain Cancer: Which Type Matters

A scar is visible on the side of Delaware Attornet General
Beau Biden's head at the State of the State address on
Jan. 23.  Photo:  Jason Minto, The (Wilmington, Del.)
News Journal
"Given that approximately 700,000 people in the U.S. are living with brain tumors or cancers, the decision to continue to not name the specific type that took Beau Biden’s life is puzzling. There may be privacy reasons which mattered while he was battling the disease, but even the political ones no longer matter. Which type of brain cancer took Biden’s life could potentially matter, however, to a lot of other people."  This article suggests that the cause of Beau Biden's brain cancer may have been exposure to the open air burn pits at Camp Victory where Captain Biden was stationed in Iraq. 

Beau Biden Brain Cancer: Which Type Matters
by Denise Williams, chicagonow.com, 6 June 2015

Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden passed away last week after battling brain cancer. There are no words to express the sorrow a parent feels at the loss of a child, regardless of the child’s age. The fact that Vice President Biden has experienced this loss before does not make it any easier.

Beau Biden, from all accounts was a good, decent man, a loving and involved father and husband. He was elected to the office of Attorney General of Delaware in 2006 and reelected in 2010. He had declined to run for a third time, instead announcing his intention to run for the Governor of Delaware in 2016. Beau Biden was also a retired Major in the Delaware National Guard.

The timing of his announcement of the intention to run for governor is significant, as this statement followed his diagnosis of brain cancer, though the fact of his illness was not publicly known at the time. Since his passing, it has been said that in the spring of 2014 Major Biden was in remission.

Speculation is now rampant that AG Biden had no intention of running for Governor, or any other political office when he declined to seek reelection as the Attorney General. It is being said that he, and his family, knew his diagnosis was terminal but to protect their privacy in his limited time left, the public focus was placed on future plans they knew would never come to pass.

The lengths to which a public servant and high profile public family have to go to in order to protect their privacy is sad. It is understandable that, on a personal level, they would choose to not disclose the seriousness of his illness but that is not the only consideration, I’m sure.

Telling the public that someone they elected to high office is ill, much less terminal, and with a disease that could raise questions about their mental faculties is a tricky decision. Again, on a personal level it is no one’s business, but as an elected official, the public needs to know the person whom they elected is and remains competent and capable. There have been no reports of concerns over Beau Biden’s mental abilities, and that needs to be kept in mind.

There are, however, a lot of questions about his illness mainly because the type of brain cancer to which he succumbed has not been named. This omission is more than a curiosity. Why the Biden family still declines to name the cancer is important primarily for the larger implications.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Beau Biden was not diagnosed nor symptomatic until the end of his term as Attorney General. The first news of an illness was in May of 2010 when he was admitted to the hospital for numbness, headache and paralysis. It is highly unlikely brain cancer was diagnosed at that time, as he would have certainly undergone treatment then.

In August of 2013, Biden was again hospitalized. At that time, what was being referred to as a brain lesion was removed and the diagnosis of brain cancer was made public. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation and was subsequently proclaimed to be in remission, with a public statement from his treating physician stating he had a “clean bill of health”.

Given that approximately 700,000 people in the U.S. are living with brain tumors or cancers, the decision to continue to not name the specific type that took Beau Biden’s life is puzzling. There may be privacy reasons which mattered while he was battling the disease, but even the political ones no longer matter. Which type of brain cancer took Biden’s life could potentially matter, however, to a lot of other people.

There are several types of brain cancer and the causes are still largely unknown. But, the course of the illness is all too predictable, depending on the type. From the known timeline and a few other factors, some suppositions about which type took Biden’s life and it’s cause may be surmised. The Biden family's loss could be a significant catalyst for change for the highest growing subgroup of those diagnosed with brain cancer – our military and veterans.

Major (Ret.) Biden, then Captain Biden, served a year- long tour in Iraq, leaving for deployment the day after Joe Biden debated Sarah Palin in September of 2008. Captain Biden returned to the States briefly in January 2009 to attend his father’s swearing in and returned to Iraq for the remainder of his tour which ended when his unit redeployed in September of 2009. While in Iraq, Captain Biden was stationed at the infamous Camp Victory.

Those who were there, who now wear the t-shirt and have the battle scars and memories joke that Camp Victory was in a different country from the one to which they were sent. It was safe enough to have a Pizza Hut and other fast food franchises and was considered 5-star luxury living compared to the conditions the majority of those doing the actual fighting in Iraq faced. But life at Camp Victory had different dangers that are still just coming to light.

When the United States and NATO forces station thousands of people in a country, just one of the logistical nightmares is what to do with the trash this many people create. The easiest and most cost effective answer is to burn it.

These now infamous Burn Pits were a part of the landscape at Camp Victory and at bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere we have stationed our troops for many, many years. In typical Pentagon logic, rather than pay a bunch of Privates and maybe a Sergeant or two to take care of this noncombat but mission critical task, the taxpayers have paid millions of dollars to a private contractor to do this menial but essential job.

KBR, formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton of Dick Cheney fame has been the recipient of these contracts. It appears they did do the job, meaning they burned everything, and I do mean everything in those pits. Papers and other documents were shredded and the bits and pieces went into the pyres along with broken or malfunctioning computer hardware, kitchen waste (for which KBR was paid separately and additionally by the food service contractors), blown tires and other mechanical equipment and a hundred things you wouldn’t think could be burned.

For the items not normally susceptible to destruction by a bonfire, accelerants such as jet fuel are added to raise the core temperature of the fire and to make the normally non-combustable combust. We all know what sufficient quantities of jet fuel can do to steel. Rubber, plastic and electronics components are no match for the 1500 degrees a fire doused with jet fuel can reach. And that was the point. If it didn’t get totally consumed, it was rendered at least unusable if not unrecognizable. The resultant residual slag was considered a small enough quantity to be buried or trucked out.

Back at home in the U.S., many communities have banned open-air burning of waste, even if it is just a pile of leaves in the fall. Industrial waste disposals that do burn are required to have significant air scrubbers to catch the toxic smoke created by burning rubber, plastics, etc. Afterall, everyone knows that setting fire to a tire creates a dangerous, oily black smoke that is not good for your health to breathe in. The industrial workers who tend state-side incinerators wear protective gear, even though the waste disposal companies say the air coming out of their smoke stacks is cleaner than the air in a typical American city.

Yet on our overseas military bases, including the former Camp Victory, there were no such protections. At least not for the troops. There were limited incinerators employed, but those were used mainly for items deemed too sensitive to risk to the open air pits and for medical waste. It is a horrifying thought, but the reality is that when a military hospital removes shrapnel from our soldiers bodies, human tissue, blood and bandages must be disposed of along with the IV’s and other items used in surgery.

Note – contrary to some conspiracy theorist claims, amputated limbs were never, ever, ever callously disposed of in this way. Personnel who were there and had this horrifying task treated the limbs and anything recognizable as human with the same respect as they did the bodies of those who died despite the best medical efforts. Separate, dedicated firings of the incinerators were attended as if it were an actual funeral with hand salutes, silent prayers and tears of recognition of the loss of health or mobility. These were solemn and respectful occasions and treated as such, so say the front line personnel who were there, not just the Officers whose job it was to respond to these vile, specious attacks.

Medical waste was handled separately and differently both out of respect for what it represented and in recognition of the potential for disease and contamination. But, disease and contamination were not a thought when it came to the open air burn pits.

In the past few years, the Army and Pentagon have done extensive studies on the issue of air quality at bases where burn pits were used. It comes as a surprise to no one that despite the proven existence of carcinogenic chemicals, the official statement is that there is no known or proven link between the burn pits and subsequent illnesses reported among troops. This defies all common sense, logic and the raw date that went into the compilation of these reports.

The reasons for these denials are obvious and simple. If it is found that the operators of the burn pits, specifically KBR on contract and orders from the Pentagon ignored or were negligent in the operation of these burn pits, they are liable for the resultant illnesses and deaths. But not just of US personnel, but also the personnel of our NATO partners. And this doesn’t even touch on the culpability of the air and soil contamination of the country in which the pits operated.

It can be argued that in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Djibouti where there are little or no environmental or air quality protections or laws, it is a moot point. But, if the Pentagon is good at one thing it is thinking of long-term self-protection. If or when an indigenous population has a spike in cancers known to be associated with the burning of certain carcinogenic materials, if the Pentagon or it’s contractor KBR admitted negligence or wrong-doing, liability in a court of law would be just one of the consequences. Some war-lord or local leader could capitalize on the issue and destabilize some future hard won peace.

In the immediate short term, the United States government by way of the Veterans Administration which is already overwhelmed and unable to properly care for our veterans, would be crushed if the 2.7 million who have deployed since 9/11 were to seek care for resultant illnesses.

But, there is some good news. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that KBR could be sued by our military personnel and veterans. In short, it was decided that as KBR is a private entity it does not enjoy the tort protections of the U.S. government or military. Lawsuits seeking damages on behalf of those who have died and by others who are struggling to live with life-altering and life-threatening illness have been filed. The Supreme Court ruling allows for these suits only; the merits of the individual suit’s claims still must be argued. Interestingly, the SCOTUS ruling was issued without comment.

This is where the issue of the death of Beau Biden becomes significant. If Biden’s brain cancer was one of those whose cause is suspected to be exposure to the open air burn pits, others seeking treatment or redress would be significantly impacted.

Special thanks to Daniel Tijerina for research assistance.


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