Michael Allison
5 min readMar 1, 2023

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Matlock and me — Camp Pendleton 1983

A Veteran’s Tale
Or: Burn Pits and Other Toxins

My father served in the Air Force during the Korea War. He joined the Air Force so he wouldn’t get drafted into the Army or the Marines. Probably a wise choice. He used to tell the story that the Air Force personnel went to Korea on ships and the Navy personnel flew over. Regardless, one part of his service story is the 10 day bus ride to Biloxi, Mississippi where he experienced his own version of the Biloxi Blues. A train ride to some other sweltering hell hole, and then a boat ride to Korea. But I digress….

At some point, the Air Force determined that my father’s teeth were not viable for an overseas combat deployment, so they jerked them out. All of his top teeth. He spent the rest of his life with a set of upper dentures. I was always a little jealous of that whenever I went to the dentist as a kid. Later, as a young Marine with a Navy dentist standing on my chest pulling out my wisdom teeth with a wrench, I decided having fillings was not that bad. And, no, they did not “put us under” for such procedures.

So, my dad went through the rest of his life with false upper teeth. He went to school on the GI Bill, and I suppose purchased his homes with his veterans’ benefits, along with a lot of hard work. He retired from government service and then went to work as a civilian in order to qualify for social security.

The last few years of my father’s life, we were working on trying to get the VA to provide permanent implants for his teeth so he didn’t have to fuss with dentures. Think about that for a minute. A guy goes to war, they pull all his teeth out and all he ever asks for is to be made whole again. Yeah, they denied it.

Don’t get me wrong. The VA does a lot and has a lot to deal with. It just seemed like a no-brainer to me. In the end he paid for magnetic implants and the denture sticks to the magnets…. Good enough.

The other day I was watching the docudrama about the life of Scotty Bowers in Hollywood. If you know Bowers’ story, it is fascinating. He spent most of his life in Hollywood helping gay and lesbian Hollywood-ites hook up safely in a time when doing so was against the law and the codes of the studios. But I digress….

In the documentary 90 year old Bowers, who was a Marine in World War II, (Marine as in Iwo Jima, Pacific campaign, jump wings…), served in the Pacific where he was issued Atabrine to prevent Malaria. Well Lo and Behold!, Atabrine can do a number on your kidneys and Bowers’, who was a bartender, but didn’t drink, was also dying of kidney failure. In parts of the documentary Bowers is visiting the VA, in one sequence, getting dialysis in the hospital.

Which brought me back to my father. My dad spent at least the last decade of his life dealing with kidney failure. I imagine at the end of the day that was what he died of. So, I thought, maybe there was something to this Atabrine thing even in Korea.

A quick trip to the VA website kinda indicated that the veterans of the Korean War were almost as forgotten as the war itself. Obviously, there were cold weather conditions identified and some industrial toxins, and what not. There didn’t seem to be too much identified as far as just the daily dangers of service life as we now know of Vietnam, the Gulf War sequelae, and the various toxins just present at military facilities. But, NO, there was no service connection to malaria treatments and kidney problems during Korea itself. So, I guess Pops wouldn’t have been treated by the VA for his kidneys, necessarily, anyway.

It is interesting that in the modern military (1990 and later?), we continue to have issues with Malaria preventatives. Service in Africa and the Middle East often was accompanied with Malaria prophylaxis in the form of Mefloquine. Although the VA hasn’t figured it out yet, Mefloquine is a MFer to say the least. Like so many preventatives we took to fight in the desert, Mefloquine is one of those for which the cure may be worse than the disease. I’m sure before the last soldier of these modern wars dies, Mefloquine will be on a presumptive list.

The recent Burn Pit act added more than 20 illnesses and cancers to the VA’s “presumptive” list — (If you were in certain locations at certain times and have the illness the VA will essentially presume that it was connected to your service). The act included illnesses and locations connected to Agent Orange before, during, and after Vietnam, as well as some Atomic testing during which the service members were guinea pigs.

My time in the Gulf may have netted me a bout or two of Melanoma, for which the government now takes a little accountability for. During the Gulf War, we threw our protective pills away which probably saved a bunch of our lives (the Navy doctor told us it was ‘voluntary’. Marines don’t volunteer). My time at Camp Lejeune resulted in my wife having two miscarriages. While the government may take some accountability for these, it does nothing for me. Of course, any time I smell shit and burning diesel, I have fond memories of two Gulf wars.

As my dad was being treated, at the end of his life, for his kidneys, cancer, and low iron, we talked about him undergoing dialysis for his kidneys. He had spoken about some nontraditional treatments and then he decided against those. I imagine that he conjured up ideas of an iron lung for these dialysis sessions, although both my wife and I discussed the modern procedures and the idea that he could be treated and go home. But in the end, being trapped in the hospital was always too much for his undiagnosed PTSD. He decided not to endure any treatment for the kidneys, and I respect that.

As I saw Scotty Bowers in the VA hospital undergoing his dialysis treatment, he looked exhausted and it looked like it had been a long day surrounded by machines. I thought about being there with my dad. He would have been incredibly stressed and anxious being hooked up and trapped in the building and the bed all day. I can’t imagine I could have survived experiencing his stress. Maybe he did make the right decision.

At the end of his life, my father struggled through his evening rituals. Kidney failure meant nothing worked right and he wasn’t the best patient. My wife did the bulk of his caretaking at the end of the day, each day, and he ended up in bed where she put lotion on his feet. Besides the honor of holding his hand every night, I also got to service his dentures and make sure they got cleaned for the next day.

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