Decorated Vet Succumbs to Burn Pit-Induced Cancer

Decorated Vet Succumbs to Burn Pit-Induced Cancer

Pancreatic cancer recently killed one of the highest-ranking members of the Vermont National Guard.

Brigadier Gen. Michael T. Heston passed away just a few days after he voluntarily ceased pancreatic cancer treatments and turned to hospice care. Gen. Heston’s wife June said that “He stopped chemo and then started radiation treatment until two weeks ago, when they told him that there was nothing more that they can do.” Gen. Heston served three tours in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2012. He began experiencing back pain in 2016; doctors diagnosed cancer in 2017. According to his family, Gen. Heston was never far away from a raging burn pit.

After he learned of Gen. Heston’s death, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said “Mike Heston has been a dedicated public servant and the very definition of a true leader as long as I have known him. True to form, he has transformed his own difficult personal struggle with cancer into a fight for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard and throughout the nation who may be suffering from exposure to airborne hazards from burn pits.”

The Link Between Burn Pits and Serious Illness

From the first time that invading armies took the field in the ancient world, sanitation has been a problem. For centuries, disease like dysentery often caused more casualties than the swords or guns of the enemy. Fortunately, these rampant infectious diseases are no longer a problem. But sanitation is still an issue.

To resolve these difficulties, the U.S. Army authorizes encamped soldiers to create burn pits. Workers dig huge holes in the ground and fill the holes with all matter of garbage. That includes potentially hazardous materials, like Styrofoam cups, medical waste, metal parts, and rubber tires. Then, workers douse the contents with jet fuel and light a match. The inferno burns 24/7/365.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, contractors were mostly responsible for burn pit maintenance. Many people labored long hours in the midst of thick clouds of toxic smoke. In the United States, there is a presumption that firefighters who develop cancer probably inhaled toxic smoke. But for some reason, that presumption does not apply to overseas burn pits. In fact, the opposite is true. The Veterans Administration has repeatedly insisted that environmental factors, and not burn pits, caused veterans to get sick.

Dust and particulate matter probably explains why so many Southwest Asia veterans have mild breathing problems when they return home. But dust does not explain the rash of serious illnesses, including cancer. Significantly, many veterans became ill in mountainous or urban areas where there is little or no dust.

In a sample of the air around Joint Base Balad (a/k/a “Camp Anaconda”), scientists discovered traces of 2, 3, 7, 8-TCDD, an extremely potent dioxin. A generation ago, dioxin sickened many Vietnam veterans because Agent Orange was laced with this toxic substance. Dioxin alters cellular genetic codes, causing them to replicate abnormally. The excessive replication eventually causes tumors, many of which are malignant.

Burn pit smoke has also been linked to deployment-related lung disease. DRLD is an umbrella term for a wide range of conditions. Some, like asthma, are not terribly serious. Other conditions, like eosinophilic syndrome, are serious and potentially fatal. The full extent of DRLD is unknown.

Available Cancer Treatments

As late as the 1990s, almost any cancer diagnosis was essentially a death sentence. Doctors simply lacked the diagnostic tools to identify the disease in its early stages while it was still treatable. Even if they successfully diagnosed cancer, most treatment options were not terribly effective.

Today, the cancer survival rate is much higher. That is partially because of better diagnostic equipment. Better treatments play a role, as well. Typically, cancer treatments still involve the same methods. But these methods have been refined over the years, as follows:

  • Radiation: Doctors have long known that radiation treatments can shrink tumors. In the 1990s, doctors basically had to bombard patients with intense radiation and hope that the therapy killed more cancer cells than healthy cells. Today’s radiation treatments are targeted much better, so lower radiation doses can be used.
  • Surgery: Since cancerous tumors are generally smaller, it is easier to remove at least a large part of them. That is even true for cancers like mesothelioma. These cancerous tumors develop in the fragile lining between the heart and lungs. 20 years ago, surgery in this part of the body was simply impossible. That is not the case today.
  • Chemotherapy: Yesterday’s chemotherapy drugs killed cancer cells that had not yet collected into tumors. But the side-effects were so bad that patients could not tolerate these drugs for very long. Today’s chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells with fewer side-effects.

Doctors are also working on the next generation of cancer treatments. That includes techniques like photodynamic treatment. This approach uses specially-designed lights and lasers to kill cancer cells.

Today’s cancer treatments are quite effective, and tomorrow’s cancer treatments show even more promise, but progress has not been cheap. Many cancer treatments cost at least $10,000 a month.

Injury Compensation Available

Fortunately, injured overseas contractors are eligible for compensation through the Defense Base Act. This 1941 law pays medical bills and also compensates victims for their lost wages.

To qualify for benefits, the victim must sustain a deployment-related injury in a war zone. Both these elements are very broadly defined.

In stateside workers’ compensation cases, victims must sustain injuries that are directly related to their jobs. Additionally, these injuries normally must occur during work hours. That is not true in the DBA context. Victims need only establish a nexus (direct or indirect connection) between their injuries and their deployment.

Assume a contractor goes swimming in the ocean partially for recreation and partially to prepare for an upcoming physical. The contractor gets caught in a riptide and is seriously injured. Full compensation is usually available, even though the incident was not directly related to the contractor’s employment.

Similarly, a “war zone” is not just a place where bullets are flying. Instead, a war zone is any country which contains at least one U.S. military installation. That could be a sprawling defense base or a military attache’s office.

On a related note, even injured victims who work for some sympathetic foreign governments are eligible for DBA compensation. Furthermore, the victim need not be an Army or CIA contractor. Many contractors work for the State Department and other U.S. government agencies.

Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A. to learn more about DBA claims procedure.