BEAU AND JOE BIDEN AT CAMP VICTORY (JULY 4, 2009)
Vice President Biden's profound and at times very public grief over the death of his eldest son has taken on a shocking new dimension: It is possible that Biden, who helped nurse that son back from severe injuries after a car crash as an infant, unknowingly signed his death warrant 30 years later.
It never will be known with certainty why Major Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III left for Iraq a healthy and vibrant 40-year-old man widely believed to eventually run for and take his father's old Senate seat, only to return home a year later to succumb to a series of mysterious and unexplained illnesses that metamorphosed into an unstoppable glioblastoma, a brain cancer that took his life at age 46 last May. But a convincing if circumstantial case can be made that the cause was exposure to toxic smoke from immense open-air burn pits at Camp Victory and another base in Iraq where Beau Biden was bivouacked.
One of the more insidious backstories of the Iraq war, which Joe Biden enthusiastically supported as a Democratic senator from Delaware, is how the friends of his predecessor, Dick Cheney, at Halliburton got rich providing housing, meals, water and many other services to Beau Biden and hundreds of thousands of other American soldiers, at a cost of $39.5 billion by reliable estimates, much of it in no-bid contracts as the Pentagon outsourced many of the non-combat duties handled by the military in previous wars.
In a shocking new book, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers, investigative journalist Joseph Hickman, himself a Marine and Army veteran, asserts that Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, where Cheney was CEO before he became vice president, poisoned thousands of American soldiers and many thousands more Iraqis with the toxic smoke from the burn pits they operated in place of the incinerators typically run by the military. Some of the burn pits were operated on or near chemical warfare sites from Saddam Hussein's rule.
People downwind from the burn pits -- which belched out clouds of toxins from the thousands of pounds of pesticide containers, lithium batteries, tires, asbestos insulation, aerosol cans, explosives, medical waste and even human corpses burned each day -- were felled by cancers and respiratory diseases, while there has been a sharp increase in birth defects in their children. Highly noxious jet fuel was often used to stoke the fires.
|VICE PRESIDENT AND PRESIDENT (OCTOBER 7, 2013)
When Barack Obama gave his last State of the Union speech last month, at his side was Joe Biden, without question the most influential vice president for good in American history. This by way of differentiating him, as if one needs to, from Dick Cheney, without question the most influential vice president for evil in American history.
As a native Delawarean, teenaged acquaintance and great admirer of Biden, this latest turn in his family story is utterly heartbreaking.
My earliest recollections of Biden are from summers at Rehoboth Beach where our families vacationed. I would be lying if I said young Joe seemed destined for politics, let alone greatness. He had little to distinguish himself from the older teenaged crowd that I aspired to be part of beyond having overcome a bad stutter to become a handsome and loquacious babe magnet who happened to have the nicest parents in the world.
While I and a lot of other people were surprised in 1972 when the 29-year-old lawyer and Democratic county councilman took on two-term Republican Senator J. Caleb Boggs, the result was Delaware at its independent minded finest. Delaware is perhaps the purplest of states, having once elected a governor and lieutenant governor from different parties. As five-term Senator Bill Roth was to learn to his dismay in 2000, incumbency goes only so far in Delaware and voters recognized that Roth, who succeeded the venerable workhorse John J. Williams, had been phoning it in for years. Ditto for Boggs, whom Biden beat by 3,100 votes despite the Nixon landslide in Delaware and nationally.
|BIDEN IN HOSPITAL WITH HUNTER AND BEAU (1973)
The intersection of Limestone and North Star roads was pretty much out in the middle of nowhere in 1972. My family's nearby home, where we would sometimes awaken to cows grazing in our front yard, was even more so. Today, suburban sprawl necessitates six traffic and four turn lanes, but back then there was a tiny liquor store and odoriferous mushroom farm on the southeast corner and farm fields on the others. I seldom had to wait long to cross Limestone whether on my bike or when I was old enough to drive my parents' car.
Five weeks after Biden's improbable victory, school teacher wife Neilia and their children Beau, 3, Hunter, 2, and Naomi, 1, were crossing Limestone Road after doing some Christmas shopping. Their station wagon was T-boned by a tractor-trailer, killing wife and daughter and critically injuring the boys.
All of sudden, a political career seemed unimportant to the bereft Biden. He told his family and national Democratic leaders that he would relinquish his Senate seat in waiting, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who was to become Biden's mentor, thought otherwise.
"He called the hospital every day to tell me he needed me in the Senate," Biden later recalled. "Mansfield told me I owed it to Neilia to be a senator. My wife had worked too hard for me to kick it away. 'Give me six months, Joe,' Senator Mansfield kept saying. So I agreed. Six months."
Biden was sworn in at the hospital bedsides of Beau and Hunter. He commuted home from Washington every work night for the next 35 years.
|BURN PIT IN IRAQ
Veterans of the Iraq war often speak of the burn pits like an enemy they were unable to leave behind.
"The only time they got relief from the siege of smoke and ash was when high-ranking generals or politicians would come visit their bases," writes Hickman in The Burn Pits. "While those VIP visits were in progress, the base commanders would temporarily stop the inferno in the pits."
One such visit was during the Independence Day holiday weekend in July 2009 when Vice President Biden stopped over in Iraq.
Biden had two missions: To bolster flagging efforts by the Iraqi government to foster national political reconciliation that would speed the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops, and to visit with his son, who was the Delaware attorney general, announced candidate for governor and a major in the Judge Advocate General Corps. Beau was assigned to the 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade at Camp Victory, one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, on the western outskirts of Baghdad.
As Beau Biden stood in the back of a cluster of troops, his father presided over a naturalization ceremony for 237 U.S. troops from 59 countries in the palace's marble rotunda. In typically colorful language, the vice president declared that "We did it in Saddam's place, and I can think of nothing better. That S.O.B. is rolling over in his grave right now."
Beau Biden was a "Fortunate Son," in the words of the Credence Clearwater song. He could have avoided going to Iraq, but did not.
He easily passed the Army Physical Fitness Test when his Delaware National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq in October 2008. The test required him to do a minimum of 34 push-ups, 38 sit-ups, and a two-mile run in 18 minutes, 18 seconds. He also was given an extensive physical exam at Fort Bliss, Texas, and was found to be in good health.
Beau Biden's tour of duty ended in September 2009. He returned home to Wilmington, Delaware and resumed his duties as attorney general, but in May 2010 awoke with a headache, numbness in his limbs and paralysis on one side of his body. He had suffered a mild stroke, but was otherwise physically fit.
He was soon released from the hospital, but his health quickly deteriorated. He felt fatigued and weak, and sometimes became disoriented. In August 2013, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and admitted to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where a lesion was removed from his brain and he received radiation and chemotherapy treatments. His cancer went into remission, but early in 2015 it reappeared with a vengeance and he was admitted to Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died.
The burn pit story follows an arc tragically familiar to the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam: Denial by the government that there was a problem, refusal by government agencies to address the problem, and finally, in the face of overwhelming evidence, grudging admissions by the government that there is indeed a problem.
Hickman did not reach his conclusions lightly nor did he rely on anecdotal evidence.
He conducted a statistical study on a sample of military personnel who said they were experiencing health problems from their exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. With assistance from the renowned Seton Hall Law Center, he found that five of the six bases where there were the worst health cases, notably cancers and respiratory illnesses, were located on or near documented chemical warfare sites abandoned by Saddam Hussein. Of the 112 service members and contractors Hickman found who served at both Camp Victory and Joint Base Balad, where Beau Biden also was stationed, 31 suffered from different forms of cancers and brain tumors.
"Sometimes the smoke was so dense that you could breath it in and back out again, kind of like smoking a cigar," retired Army Sergeant Marcus Hill told Hickman. "[But] after being blown up a couple of times, you didn't complain about stuff like that. It wasn't a big deal. It was part of our mission and we were told not to worry about it."
|BEAU BIDEN'S FUNERAL (JUNE 6, 2015)
I do not presume to play God in suggesting that there is another dimension to Joe Biden's grief that is unfathomable to people who have not just lost a child, but wonder if there was something they could have done. But Biden did play God when he voted for the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002 and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a bellicose supporter of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld pro-war troika.
Biden has a big ego, but then that is more or less essential in his line of work. He did some less than praiseworthy things in his 35 years as a United States senator, but on balance did enormous good. I know, spoken like a true bleeding-heart liberal.
Could Biden have anticipated that his vote justifying a war that from its planning through its catastrophic execution and whimpering end was an unmitigated disaster might take the life of his beloved eldest son? No. Did any of the 77 senators and 277 congressfolk who supported what became Public Law No: 107-243 really consider the consequences of sending American men and women into harm's way to fight the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time amidst the post-9/11 hysteria? Probably not. Do the current crop of Republican chickenhawks like Ted Cruz understand that they are advocating making the same awful mistakes over again? Of course not.
Beau Biden is said to have urged his father to wage one last campaign for the White House, asserting that America would be better served by his values. That death-bed wish could have upended the presidential campaign, and I suggest that the father -- as he again sat at Beau's bedside -- was all to aware that the son he had nursed back to health so long ago was leaving this mortal coil because of a war he slavishly promoted. That may begin to explain why his decision on whether to run was so agonizingly drawn out.
A dear friend is a psychologist, PTSD therapist and best-selling author. She has worked in the health-care system for decades and has seen the horrors inflicted on veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War and now Iraq and Afghanistan. Or in less diplomatic terms, what can happen to the victims of government lies.
"I love Joe Biden," she said after I shared the story of he and Beau with her. "I love Joe Biden for the trajectory of a life in which he has grown and changed and awakened in so many ways. I love him because he has suffered above and beyond so many."
Biden is a deep and deeply spiritual man. My friend's thoughts suggest a role for the vice president when he finally returns to civilian life after nearly 45 years in Washington: As an advocate for patriots like his son.