Mil­i­tary vet­er­ans face ris­ing cancer deaths

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY TARA COPP [email protected]­clatchydc.com

On Me­mo­rial Day 2013, Coleen Bow­man was a new widow. Her hus­band had died four months ear­lier and she wanted sup­port to face that first mil­i­tary hol­i­day of re­mem­brance. So she reg­is­tered for TAPS, or the Tragedy As­sis­tance Pro­gram for Sur­vivors, and spent the week­end with hun­dreds of other griev­ing mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.

“There was a lot of KIAs,” Coleen said, re­fer­ring to those killed in ac­tion.

But that was not how Coleen’s hus­band had died, and it made her feel more alone.

“It was like, ‘Oh, your hus­band died of an ill­ness.’ ”

She’s no longer alone. TAPS’ mem­ber­ship rolls are grow­ing, but not be­cause of com­bat deaths. In the last five years, it has re­ported a 51% in­crease in the numbers of fam­i­lies griev­ing for a ser­vice mem­ber who died due to ill­ness or cancer.

The spike led the or­ga­ni­za­tion to make a tragic pro­jec­tion: By 2020, the top killer driv­ing mil­i­tary fam­i­lies to join TAPS won’t be sui­cide. It will be can­cers or other ill­nesses.

TAPS has re­ported more than 10,000 ser­vice mem­ber deaths due to ill­ness since 2007, based on the fam­i­lies who are on its mem­ber­ship rolls. In to­tal, 85,000 fam­i­lies of fallen ser­vice mem­bers have joined the or­ga­ni­za­tion since it launched in 1994.

“The trend just re­ally started to es­ca­late,” TAPS Pres­i­dent Bon­nie Car­roll said. “Then we ac­tu­ally started see­ing en­tire units who were af­fected.”

Coleen’s hus­band, Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Bow­man, 44, was an Army Ranger who de­ployed to Iraq in 2004 with Re­con pla­toon of the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based

1st Bat­tal­ion, 24th In­fantry Reg­i­ment. His ar­mored Stryker was hit by enemy fire at least 13 times dur­ing his 12 months over­seas. Each time, de­pleted ura­nium in the Stryker’s ar­mor would ab­sorb the at­tack.

In ret­ro­spect, Coleen won­ders what harm­ful par­ti­cles shook loose in those blasts, what her hus­band breathed in. Bow­man went back to Iraq in 2007 for an­other 15 months.

Once home, he started to feel ill. Vis­its to doc­tors sug­gested he had the flu. Fi­nally, in 2011 Bow­man got the di­ag­no­sis: cholan­gio­car­ci­noma, or bile duct cancer. It is a rare cancer in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, and very rare for some­one as young as Rob.

But it’s not un­usual to see rare can­cers in younger ser­vice mem­bers any­more.

“It just was more and more fam­i­lies com­ing for­ward with ex­actly the same story,” Car­roll said. “Sto­ries of young ser­vice mem­bers who went into de­ployed ar­eas per­fectly healthy, and then came home and at a young age who were sud­denly Stage 4 with very rare can­cers.”

The sto­ries don’t sur­prise Coleen. Her hus­band was a re­spected se­nior en­listed leader who was very close to his pla­toon. She has stayed in touch with the ma­jor­ity of them. Many of them are ill.

“Over a third of them had some­thing wrong with them or have passed away,” Coleen Bow­man said. She’s heard of sev­eral cases of brain tu­mors and other “strange tu­mors that they don’t even know what it is.”

For now, most of the data is anec­do­tal. It is sto­ries passed from one spouse to an­other or by vet­er­ans in on­line fo­rums or pri­vate sup­port groups. The var­i­ous data­bases run by the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs and De­fense Depart­ment that track cancer-re­lated en­tries for health care are un­wieldy or in­ac­ces­si­ble for com­pil­ing trends.

There are also gov­ern­ment reg­istries where ser­vice mem­bers can sel­f­re­port. But get­ting holis­tic, spe­cific in­for­ma­tion on what units may have been ex­posed to, what ill­nesses its mem­bers are suf­fer­ing from, and ty­ing those ill­nesses to mil­i­tary ser­vice is dif­fi­cult.

Dur­ing its an­nual Me­mo­rial Day con­fer­ence on Sun­day, TAPS and sev­eral other vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tions will launch an ef­fort to be­gin to cap­ture the full ex­tent of the prob­lem, be­gin­ning with its first-ever panel on “Un­der­stand­ing Toxic Ex­po­sure in the Mil­i­tary.” They will dis­cuss ill­nesses tied to over­seas wars and do­mes­tic liv­ing con­di­tions.

“When we talk about toxic ex­po­sure, we’re talk­ing OCONUS, which is over­seas, and CONUS, which is here in the United States,” said Derek Fron­abarger, leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor of the Wounded War­rior Project. Ex­po­sure to con­tam­i­nated wa­ter at Camp Le­je­une could be in­cluded. So could po­ten­tial lead poi­son­ing in mil­i­tary hous­ing, he said.

The De­fense Depart­ment has been build­ing a data­base that could help called the In­di­vid­ual Long Ex­po­sure Record, which is sched­uled to be on­line as of Oct. 1 and ac­ces­si­ble to VA doc­tors and De­fense Depart­ment re­searchers.

In­di­vid­ual ser­vice mem­bers, how­ever, will have to file Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests to ac­cess their own records.

The vet­er­ans groups will also push for in­creased ac­cess to those records, Fron­abarger said, to en­able mil­i­tary per­son­nel and their doc­tors to more quickly con­clude, “you know, your cough might be more than a cough.”

Coleen now serves as a pub­lic speaker for TAPS to raise awareness on mil­i­tary ser­vice-re­lated ill­nesses. It’s some­thing Rob asked her to do.

In the 19 months af­ter he was di­ag­nosed, Rob and Coleen learned more about his ex­po­sure and about how many oth­ers from his unit were also ill.

He wrote let­ters to their four daugh­ters, the youngest of whom was only 10 years old when he died. “He ac­tu­ally left cards for our daugh­ters to open on their wed­ding day, their 21st birthday, just re­ally spe­cial oc­ca­sions in their life,” Coleen said.

He also left Coleen with a mis­sion.

“He was a great leader,” Coleen said. “His last gift of lead­er­ship was to say ‘Make sure and tell my story and help the men be­hind me.’ ”

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