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The War on Terror Created a Cancer Crisis. These Vets Are Trying to Fight Back.

More than 500,000 active-duty soldiers have been diagnosed with cancer over the past two decades.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
A soldier walks past a burn pit in Afghanistan in 2013.

All Brian Hueske had to protect himself from the deadliest element of his deployment was a bandanna wrapped around his face. Of course, the body armor would do its part to stop any incoming fire, though those sorts of engagements were unlikely. And the transports Hueske’s Special Forces unit used were heavily armored to protect against explosions. That kind of attack was unlikely too.

No, it was the toxins in the air, emanating across the installation where Hueske and the 20th Special Forces Group were deployed, that the soldiers feared most. Hueske and his teammates suspected they had been sent to serve in a cancer cluster, though there was nothing official confirming as much.

Hueske is a Green Beret who has served in the Special Forces for the last 17 years. That last deployment—a six-month rotation in 2020—sent him to the outskirts of a small city in Niger where an American military installation sat just a few hundred yards downwind from the largest open-pit uranium mine in the world. The installation was a small collection of adobe-style buildings mostly constructed of mud, no more than a few dozen acres in size. And while each structure had windows and split-level air conditioning units, there was no air purification system in place. Hueske and the others in his group would wrap those bandannas around their faces when they were outside, the only prophylactic the Special Operators on site employed. Otherwise, they tried to work indoors as much as possible.

Hueske began researching air purifiers but found nothing on the military’s official marketplaces thanks to rules requiring each vendor’s product to be either produced in America or made using certain types of special labor. Everything Hueske found was largely manufactured in China or Korea, making it virtually inaccessible via the military marketplace.

Seeing a desperate need, Hueske linked up with a friend who was working in the HVAC field when he returned home from Niger in late 2020. Their aim was to create something they could then sell to the Department of Defense with the hopes of someday outfitting every military structure around the world with their units, to provide a line of defense against what has become the most dangerous element to military deployment.

American military veterans of the “war on terror” are nearly 100 times more likely to develop some form of cancer than they are to be killed in action. Whereas the war on terror claimed over 7,000 lives of U.S. military personnel, more than 500,000 active-duty soldiers have been diagnosed with cancer over the past two decades. Due to exposure to toxic chemicals found in ordnance, burn pits, combat operations in countries and regions with lax environmental restrictions, or some combination of all three, cancer or chronic illness stemming from deployments is endemic to veterans returning home over the past two decades.

Last August, after a nearly decade and a half–long campaign by advocates, President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act into law. By adding to the list of health conditions the military presumes are a result of exposure to toxic substances such as burn pits and Agent Orange, along with presumptive-exposure conditions and locations for veterans of the country’s post-9/11 wars abroad, the Gulf War, and Vietnam, the Act expands health coverage availabilities and options for veterans. “We have many obligations but one truly sacred obligation: to equip those we send into harm’s way and to take care of them and their families when they come home,” Biden said as he signed the act into law.

It may have taken 15 years of battles on Capitol Hill, but the United States finally and officially recognized that our veterans have been routinely exposed to cancer-causing toxins while deployed. And that new law—whose full name is the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, so named for a war on terror veteran whose fatal cancer he attributed to his exposure to toxic burn pits during his deployment to Iraq—is a massive step in the right direction for veterans’ health care. By recognizing more potential causes of illnesses, such as the aforementioned burn pits and Agent Orange, it allows many veterans to more easily access needed health care options.

But despite those gains, the law contains a glaring blind spot, as it focuses on treatment and effect rather than prevention and the root causes behind these problems. Vets might now be able to get treatment once they’ve developed cancer or other diseases, but the underlying causes remain.

Soon after his return to the States, Hueske and his partner were prototyping and 3-D-printing small but high-powered air purifiers in their North Carolina garages, and their company, GrōvPure, was born. Hueske is quick to admit one of the hurdles his company must overcome: that air purification is simply not very sexy in the eyes of the military. “If we were selling bullets or body armor, they’d be all over us,” Hueske said. “But air purifiers? It’s boring. But it’s the kind of thing that’s going to save a lot more lives than anything else.”

He went on to explain that most service members never find themselves on the pointy end of a fight. That is, the majority of the military is never taking or returning fire in hostile combat zones. But most service members deal with some sort of toxic air environments at some stage in their careers, especially those on deployments.

GrōvPure is currently seeking approval to be included on the military marketplaces. Meanwhile, the company is making headway into other areas, having sold 10,000 units over the past year to the state of Oregon’s health authority to aid in its efforts to fight wildfires. “The federal government has a lot of restrictive policies when it comes to purchasing,” Hueske said. “But Oregon doesn’t have those kinds of policies for these things, so it was easier for us to outfit them—to help them.”

Like Huekse, Chelsey Simoni has taken matters into her own hands in an effort to help arm veterans with the best measures to aid in their potential battles with cancer.

One night in 2015, Simoni’s husband, Kyle, mentioned how many of his military friends were dead. Simoni, an Army veteran herself, remarked that that’s what happens to most soldiers who, like Kyle, served for more than 15 months in combat zones. But these veterans weren’t dying in combat, Kyle, who’d been deployed to Iraq, said, though those accounted for a few. Nor was it predominantly from post-service suicides, though those also accounted for a few others. Rather, many of his combat buddies were dying from cancer at all-too-young ages.

Simoni, who now works as a trauma nurse, clinical nurse researcher, and epidemiologist (while also pursuing a Ph.D. in a nursing), sought out more information but found no data linking post-9/11 veterans and heightened cancer rates. Simoni, then still in nursing school, approached her adviser, asking if she could undertake a study to further explore her husband’s claim. The adviser laughed and told her undergraduates didn’t perform studies. Unfazed, Simoni developed her own research study on airborne hazards and burn pits among post-9/11 vets. At the time, she had little interest in epidemiology. Rather, she was driven by the need to figure out what was happening to these young soldiers.

According to the abstract of Simoni’s 2018 study, which was published with the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020, the veterans involved experienced an increase in respiratory clinical symptoms when compared to their pre-deployment periods, with shocking data points, such as a 76 percent increase in shortness of breath while exercising and a nearly 33 percent increase in general chest pain post-deployment.

As a vet herself, married to a vet, Simoni knew there was little being done through the V.A. or other military medical institutions to abate, protect, or even care for those suffering from these illnesses. So in 2019, Simoni started the HunterSeven Foundation, named for the call sign of Sergeant Major Rob Bowman, Kyle’s commanding officer, who died from bile duct cancer in January 2013 at age 44.

Motivated by the near-complete lack of information on post-9/11 veterans, HunterSeven set out to uncover and make known as much data as possible, hoping to draw links between service and illness. Almost immediately, the foundation was flooded by veterans reaching out with their own stories of illness and the walls they had to breach in an effort to find care. Comprised of a small group of volunteers, all of whom work in the medical field, HunterSeven has undertaken extensive clinical research, using data to continue to draw lines between post-9/11 deployments and incidences of cancer and other deadly illnesses, as those connections are essential to ensure the government provides post-service care.

One of the organization’s biggest research discoveries has highlighted the discrepancies in cancer rates between branches. Air Force veterans who served on active duty are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer when compared not only to their age-adjusted civilian population but also to every other branch of service. Meanwhile, Marines, despite having the highest exposures to combat, had the lowest risk ratio for cancer diagnosis. Simoni said that as much as this data likely has something to do with exposure to work on flight lines, with jet fuels and the like, it is more likely a corollary to the average career span of an Air Force member being 12 to 16 years longer than that of a Marine. The more time in the service, the more years spent exposed to potentially toxic materials.

From this research, HunterSeven has used evidence-based education to equip veterans with as much information as is available so they can understand what they might be dealing with due to what they encountered while deployed. The group also provides immediate-need cancer screening and support for veterans who are at risk for developing cancer. As all of HunterSeven’s team members are a variety of medical providers, they have the unique ability to order tests and screenings, such as the Multi-Cancer Early Detection Test, which—though still in its early stages and not yet FDA-approved—screens for 50 different types of cancer using only two tubes of blood. While the screening is costly—roughly $950 per test—Simoni claims her team has been able to help 107 veterans get the test, identifying possible signs of early-stage cancer in 19 of them.

Additionally, HunterSeven offers support for travel and lodging for vets undergoing cancer treatment. It also orders a GrōvPure air purifying unit for every one of its charges who is diagnosed with cancer.

“Our goal is not only to educate providers but to educate service members and their families,” Simoni said. “Because a lot of service members don’t even realize that they’re at risk.”

Abigail DePaulo’s husband, Carmen, died of colorectal cancer in March 2021, at just 36 years old. Carmen was a Special Forces medic who deployed several times in the couple’s five years together. It wasn’t until after Carmen’s untimely death that Abigail was introduced to HunterSeven. Since then, however, she proselytizes about the organization to whoever she thinks could use their help. 

“HunterSeven is an amazing organization that I didn’t know about until after Carm’s passing because it was not a resource the military provided,” Abigail said. “If they could have been involved early on with Carmen, the outcome might have been different. So now I try to point people to them whenever I can.”

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