Veterans exposed to burn pits could be at higher risk for COVID-19

Photo credit Courtesy of Spc. Rudy Wiebe

Before Army veteran Rudy Wiebe deployed four times to Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan, he never had chronic pain or trouble breathing. 

But after years spent around burning military trash, including human feces, showering in water that was questionable at best, he’s living with issues no 32-year-old should. 

Wiebe tries to stay in good shape, though he has to use an inhaler sometimes for breathing issues. After leaving the Army as an Airborne infantry specialist in 2014, he joined the Army National Guard. He's had traumatic brain injuries and copes with his PTSD. But he doesn't think he's much different from the average soldier. 

So it's not surprising that when he developed pain after going to the gym on February 6, he brushed it off as a pulled muscle. COVID-19 didn’t cross his mind. 

But the pain continued. 

“I woke up that night just feeling really weird,” he told Connecting Vets. “I just thought ‘Man, something just doesn’t feel right.’” 

Walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, he felt weak and said he was “shivering.” 

“I didn’t sleep well that night -- maybe two hours,” he said. 

This continued for days. Wiebe continued to dismiss an increasing sense that something much more than a strained muscle was wrong with him. 

Soon, he developed unusual breathing trouble.  

Friends told him to get help.

“But I just kept saying I’d be fine,” he said. 

It took a friend asking if he was OK, telling him “You look like you’re going to die” and offering to drive him to the hospital to convince Wiebe. 

He headed to his local VA Medical Center and checked into urgent care. 


Doctors and nurses thought it might be a bad muscle pull, too, but ordered blood work and a chest X-ray “just in case,” Wiebe said. 

More scans confirmed it. The 32-year-old soldier had a blood clot. 

“I just kept thinking ‘Don’t older individuals get that?’” he said.

Wiebe went home with blood thinners and orders for bed rest.

He continued to deteriorate, though, and his breathing worsened. So he went back to the hospital again and again.

After a checkup with his VA primary care doctor and another trip to urgent care, doctors found fluid in his lungs. They diagnosed him with walking pneumonia. 

He was also tested for three types of coronavirus, but not COVID-19. Finally, he was tested for that also. 

“She calls me and tells me ‘Come in, you need a mask, I think you have corona,’” Wiebe said. 

He was triaged in a tent outside the California VA hospital, had both nostrils swabbed and was told to go home and quarantine himself. He’d know his results in 2 to 7 days. 

On March 23, Wiebe learned he tested positive for COVID-19.