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War, Burn Pits, Resentment, and Grace: A Natural Imbalance

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Thibault Camus/AP Photo

Last week, our incompetent and functionally broken congress passed the PACT Act that expands VA health care and benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances. I’ve been using my platform for 4 years to raise awareness of this issue. I wrote a series of national columns in 2019 about my battle with the VA to get my lung damage from burn pits covered; I appeared on Fox News to discuss the issue; and I’ve talked about it in every  media and book tour interview. It’s the least I can do to use my voice for others who can’t or don’t want to speak out. And every time, I felt like I was screaming into the wind because congress wouldn’t act on an issue that was first identified back in 2004, 18 years ago. Our politicians failed us, refusing to listen to veterans or the family members of veterans who already passed away from cancers and illnesses caused by toxic exposure. 


It’s why I find it hilariously and tragically ironic that it took the veteran advocacy group Burn Pits 360 to recruit the help of comedian and activist Jon Stewart to create the public pressure to get congress to act, and even then, incompetently so in the final days. Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for Mr. Stewart’s intervention and support. Small voices like mine were never heard, and he has the well-deserved credibility and record to make things happen. But I’m disgusted and infuriated to the point of physical rage that it took a celebrity to get our insidiously corrupt politicians to act. It shouldn’t be that way. They should understand when a cause is so righteous that the only thing to do is act, but their years of failure illustrate how detached, selfish, and out of touch politicians are with the citizens they serve.  

In 2006, I volunteered to go to Fallujah. The insurgency was in full-effect, and the Marine in me couldn’t wait to get into the fight. As a captain, it wasn’t my job to question why we were there – it was my job to fulfill my duties to the best of my abilities. And I did, nearly at the cost of my life with a few close calls thanks to rockets and mortars, and then permanent lung damage that started within a month of redeploying home. But I willingly made that choice, and I’d make it again with what I knew at the time. 

Now, 15 years later, with all that we’ve learned about the lack of WMD, the thousands of Americans killed, the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, billions of dollars wasted, and the instability that resulted, I’m filled with such utter contempt towards our senior leaders – whom I supported at the time – who should’ve known better. But it seems our elected and appointed leaders never prioritize the welfare of the ones that have to sacrifice and pay for our leaders’ mistakes. That’s the part that really burns me – the fundamental lack of accountability. You’d think we’d have learned by now to stop putting our trust in failed leaders, but we haven’t. War is nothing but the imposition of one nation’s political will on another’s, but our problem is that we’ve entrusted the worst of our society with starting and ending it. And that hard truth makes me sick and furious on a near-daily basis. 


I don’t mind having sacrificed for my country, especially when I have friends who didn’t make it back and others who lost limbs. It’s an honor to have served, but it’s frustrating to have served for those with no honor. And I’m reminded of it every time I run and start coughing, every time I’m sick and knocked out of commission for weeks on end, and every time I see another horrible failure by our senior leaders that ends in the death of honorable men and women. But the part that I can’t get my head around, can’t find the grace to accept, at least in the case of Iraq, is that it was avoidable. Unfortunately, certain people in power were hellbent on invading at all costs, costs that they didn’t have to make sitting thousands of miles away in DC office buildings. That’s the part that I resent, and resentment is never a good thing for a recovering alcoholic 13 ½ years sober.  

I thought that as I got older (I just turned 50, and I’m fighting Father Time all the way to the grave), I’d mellow out, become more accepting. I see people much younger than I like Johnny Joey Jones (who lost both legs) seemingly at peace with what happened to him. But I’m not at peace. I’m still angry, and I despise the corrupt leaders who ruined lives for their own purposes. And last week’s PACT Act passage hammered all of it home once again – the failure of congress to take care of those who serve, the resentment I harbor because of it, and the fear that the incompetence will continue in an endless cycle that will sacrifice the next generation of warriors. 


Grace is an ideal, and I hope I find it one day. More importantly, I wish our corrupt leaders had just a fraction of the idealism that I and my fellow Marines once shared. Maybe then I’d have hope for our military’s future because right now, our leaders only have traits that begin with the word “self,” and those are dangerous character defects to have when they’re the ones running the military.  

Semper Fidelis.  

Matthew Betley is a former Marine officer, a recovering alcoholic, an advocate for victims of toxic exposure to Burn Pits, and an internationally-published and award-nominated thriller novelist and a screenwriter.  His latest thriller, THE NEIGHBORHOOD, about a gated community under siege in the middle of the night, arrives tomorrow 9 August 2022.  Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBetley or find him on Facebook and Instagram.


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