Toxic exposure could soon kill more service members and veterans than suicide, advocates say

Toxic Inferno: How burning military trash is poisoning our troops

Abbie Bennett
September 24, 2019 - 9:10 am
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Photo illustration by Heather Sullivan/Connecting Vets. Photo: Cpl. Samuel Corum.

This is the first installment in the Connecting Vets Toxic Inferno series.

Coleen Bowman woke up at 5 a.m. every morning. She did her hair and makeup and got dressed.

She gave herself plenty of time, just in case the Army showed up at her door to tell her that her husband was dead. He would have wanted her to look nice. And it was a decision she could make in a life largely outside her control.

Thankfully, that knock on the door never came for Coleen. 

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Courtesy of Coleen Bowman.

Instead, her husband survived years of dangerous missions, bullets and IEDs while leading his men into near-continuous combat in Iraq. He led his men outside the wire again and again. He was forthright and told each of them he wouldn’t be able to bring them all home. He held them to a high standard and wasn’t afraid to remove soldiers who couldn’t live up to his expectations. 

His men looked up to him as a father figure, admired him as a family man and affectionately called him “platoon daddy.” Rob Bowman and Coleen hosted platoon parties at their home, welcoming his soldiers into their family.

“He treated us like his children and always took care of us,” one of Bowman’s soldiers, Richard Vasquez, told Connecting Vets. “We really looked up to him.” 

Two long deployments later, Bowman made it home to his wife and young daughters and headed to the Sergeant Major’s Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas.

But something deadly came home with the decorated Army sergeant major -- a danger more insidious even than the hostile insurgents he faced.

It killed him at 44.

“I didn’t think he would make it home,” Coleen told Connecting Vets of the grueling OPTEMPO of her husband’s deployments. “But he did. And then to lose him because of the air he was breathing?” 

Bowman is not alone in his fate. A silent, burning enemy is invading and poisoning U.S. troops of all ages, ranks and backgrounds, advocates say. Troops who fought through deployment after perilous deployment to come home safely -- or so they thought. 

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Courtesy of Coleen Bowman

 

30 men made it home. Now one-third of them are sick or dead.

Bowman and his troops slept just a few hundred yards from an open-air burn pit at forward operating base Marez in Mosul in northern Iraq -- a giant, smoking trash hole in the ground filled with no-one-quite-knows-what, doused in jet fuel (often JP-8) and set ablaze. 

At least one-third of the 30 men in Bowman’s platoon during his first Iraq deployment who made it home have experienced health concerns they and their doctors link to toxic exposure, Coleen and members of the platoon told Connecting Vets.

Health issues from military toxic exposure are not uncommon, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

One in three service members report “definite or probable exposure to environmental hazards” and one of every four troops report “persistent health concerns due to deployment exposures,” according to the VA.

Those exposures can include toxins such as Agent Orange, nerve agents, fuels, pesticides, radiation, oil fires and burn pits. 

There was an incinerator at Bowman’s FOB in Mosul. But it was rarely if ever used, Coleen said. 

Bowman deployed to Iraq with Recon platoon of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, or Deuce Four, assigned to 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division Lightning, a Stryker brigade, which was instrumental in the Battle of Mosul in 2004. Bowman’s Stryker was struck by enemy fire at least 13 times over 12 months. 

The battalion would return home decorated with five Silver Stars, 31 Bronze Stars and 181 Purple Hearts and was later awarded the Valorous Unit Award. Several of those Bronze Stars belonged to Bowman. 

“They didn’t care how they got rid of their trash,” she said. “They were more worried about getting back behind the wire safely every night.” 

Two from Bowman’s platoon of 32 didn’t make it home -- 22-year-old Sgt. Adam Plumondore and 24-year-old Sgt. Ben Morton. 

Yet what killed Coleen's husband and her daughters’ father was an enemy that lurked inside that wire -- an enemy hanging unseen in the air, camouflaged in the smoke or barrels of insecticide soldier’s uniforms were dunked in. And it followed him home, striking when he thought he was finally safe.

 

‘It was cancer’

Bowman had never taken a sick day in his two decades of military service, Coleen said. He passed his over-40 physical ahead of the Sergeant Major Academy at Fort Bliss. But he was brought low by what doctors thought was the flu. Then Lyme disease. Then a parasite. 

The normally mild-mannered soldier, husband and father was incensed. He pounded his fist on the table and all but ordered doctors to find out what was wrong with him. 

The tests started in earnest. A full-body scan eventually showed a liver “that looked like swiss cheese,” Coleen said. Bowman was immediately prepped for a six-hour surgery. 

But a pre-op biopsy showed it wasn’t a parasite picked up in Iraq, as doctors originally thought. 

“It was cancer,” Coleen said. “Stage IV, inoperable.” 

Bowman began chemotherapy to treat cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer, hours after his diagnosis. 

Extensive genetic testing would eventually show that Bowman’s extremely rare cancer was likely environmental, with only a few thousand cases ever reported and most in older people of Asian descent. Bowman was Caucasian and in his early 40s.

The head of oncology at William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Dr. Warren Alexander, told Coleen he had seen trends of soldiers with rare, aggressive and recurring cancers for years, including about five percent of each year’s Sergeant Major Academy candidates.

The Army declined to make Alexander available for interviews and did not respond to repeated requests to speak to any other expert.

Toxic exposure is a war wound that starts out largely invisible but eventually begins to take over the body, as seen in veterans exposed to Agent Orange or those with Gulf War Illness, experts say. Bowman lost weight, hair and his vitality. The poisons that penetrated his body while deployed more than likely caused the cancer that took his life, Coleen said doctors told her.

He was not the first, and he will not be the last. 

 

Toxic exposure deaths could outpace suicide

Coleen, now Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) senior advisor, says the group expects toxic exposure deaths to outpace deaths by suicide in the military and veteran communities by 2020. TAPS has seen a 51-percent increase in the number of families who have lost a service member or veteran to illness, including rare cancers and other illnesses they connect to toxic exposure.

TAPS reports more than 10,000 troop deaths from illnesses since 2007. 

Some have begun to call it the “modern-day Agent Orange” but toxic exposure is so much more, Coleen said.

“This is killing them a lot younger and a lot faster,” she said. “Soldiers in their 20s, 30s.” 

And just as it was in Bowman’s case, doctors -- civilian and military alike -- are throwing up their hands.

“They don’t know what it is,” she said. 

“You want answers. So when we got them, when we learned it was caused by something in his environment, it was validation.” 

After his diagnosis, Bowman was staring down the barrel of a life almost certainly cut short, and the knowledge that “the Army is not in the business of keeping sick soldiers,” Coleen said. Medical retirement was imminent. 

“He was a patriot like I’ve never seen,” Coleen said. “He was put on this earth to soldier.” 

One day, Coleen said her husband told her he never wanted to have another soldier come and tell him that the Army "‘doesn’t want me or need me anymore.’” 

So, though it could be a blow to his benefits, Bowman chose to retire. 

“This was his dream,” Coleen said. “And we had it ripped out from under us.”

There was one thing Bowman regretted, Coleen said.

“'I’m really angry that I don’t get to grow old with you. We had so many plans and now I don’t get to do it with you,'” he told her. Bowman died Jan. 13, 2013.

After laying her husband to rest, Coleen began to feel the mission he charged her with six months before his death -- tell his story, the stories of his men, the stories of the 3.5 million other service members potentially exposed. Do what it takes to keep one more family from feeling the same loss.

“Help the guys behind me,” Bowman told his wife.

And that’s exactly what Coleen has now dedicated her life to.

“This is my husband. This is how he died. He’s not the only one. This is very real and no one is talking about it,” she said. 

Burn pits are still in use in areas American soldiers serve, including Syria, Afghanistan and Egypt, according to the Defense Department. 

“There’s something wrong with that,” Coleen said, vehemently. “Have you not learned this lesson?”

It didn’t matter that the knock on the door never came. Rob Bowman was still gone. Coleen and her girls were still alone, forced to rebuild lives in his wake. 

On the day of her husband’s funeral, Coleen rose early one more time, did her hair and put on a dress. She wore impractical heels that sunk into the cemetery grass. It was what she could control -- one more tribute to her hero. He would have wanted her to look nice.

“I watched him die. I was there when he took his last breath,” Coleen said, tears in her voice. “You don’t forget someone like him.”

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Courtesy of Coleen Bowman.

Need help with toxic exposure? Click here for a list of resources and information on VA and Defense Department registries.

Read more of the Connecting Vets Toxic Inferno series:

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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