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Veterans’ Cancer Rates Are Spiking

VA data reveals shocking level of new diagnoses among Iraq and Afghanistan-era patients

Sick veteran Brian Alvarado, from the film, "Delay, Deny, Hope You Die: How America Poisoned its Soldiers" (Credit: Greg Lovett)

For more than a decade, Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans have been warning that their exposure to toxic burn pits in the war zone has been linked to cancer. This, in addition to documented irreversible respiratory illness, skin lesions, neurological disorders and more. 

Now the evidence is pouring in. According to a new report by McClatchy news, the number of recent veterans diagnosed at the VA with various cancers has increased dramatically, and many are blaming the massive open-air pits, which were used to burn everything from batteries and tires, to medical waste and body parts, unfiltered, on U.S. bases.

McClatchy found that the rate of cancer treatments for veterans at Department of Veterans Affairs health care centers increased 61 percent for urinary cancers ⁠— which include bladder, kidney and ureter cancers ⁠— from fiscal year 2000 to 2018.

The rate of blood cancer treatments ⁠— lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia ⁠— rose 18 percent in the same period. Liver and pancreatic cancer treatment rates increased 96 percent and prostate cancer treatment rates increased 23 percent.

When confronted with the assessments—which were based on all billing data for veteran visits involving a cancer diagnosis at VA medical facilities from fiscal year 2000 to 2018 (obtained through a FOIA request)—the agency said it might be an “overcount” and that an “internal registry” of cancer diagnoses might show a much less dramatic increase, if not an overall decrease in cases over time.

One needs to keep in mind that the VA and the Pentagon have been trying to play down the effects of burn pits since veterans started demanding answers 10 years ago. The VA often points to the “burn pit registry” (which it initially resisted) to show that its doing something about all of the claims, but there are over 187,000 burn pit-related vets registered and no one seems to be satisfied that the government is owning up to its responsibility for putting our men and women into a toxic warzone without the proper protection. Now that it’s time to pay the piper so to speak, Uncle Sam is doing everything it can to prolong health care and disability compensation to those who need it.

Like retired Air National Guard Capt. Shelia Frankenfield. She told McClatchy that she and her future husband deployed within 30 days of each other to Balad, Iraq, in 2008.

In 2012, then married, they were diagnosed with cancer two weeks apart. She with breast cancer at age 42, he with testicular cancer at age 38.

“What’s the chance that we deployed 30 days apart, at the same base, and now we both have cancer? This is not the norm,” said Frankenfield, a registered nurse. She asked that her husband not be identified because he is still serving.

Frankenfieldsuspects the burn pit in Balad, where air quality was monitored starting in 2004 due to waste particles that troops were breathing in. It could also be the water sources at Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg International Airport, where she was based with 1,800 members of the 193rd Air National Guard Special Operations Wing. In 2018 the Defense Department acknowledged in a report to Congress that the airfield’s water was contaminated.

Frankenfield has started to collect names of current and former members of the 193rd Air National Guard Special Operations Wing who had cancer, including those who have died, and those like her, who had to retire from the military for medical reasons.

“It’s about 100 names,” shesaid. “And I know there’s more out there.”

How pathetic that it might be burn pits or water contamination to blame. In both cases, the government was not protecting its own, and moved to cover it up when the truth began to emerge publicly. Just like Vietnam. Just like Persian Gulf. In the case of Vietnam vets suffering from Agent Orange, it was a long, hard road to recognition; for the Gulf War Illness sufferers, they are still waiting.

It’s Veterans Day —What are your representatives in Congress doing about it?

 

 

about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor, has been writing for TAC for the last decade, focusing on national security, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic politics. She served for 15 years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, and at WTOP News in Washington from 2013-2017 as a writer, digital editor and social media strategist. She has also worked as a beat reporter at Bridge News financial wire (now part of Reuters) and Homeland Security Today, and as a regular contributor at Antiwar.com. A native Nutmegger, she got her start in Connecticut newspapers, but now resides with her family in Arlington, Va.

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