Battle Over Burn Pits, Part 1

Published: Sep. 10, 2018 at 3:49 PM EDT
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America's longest war may be creating long-term health impacts for veterans.

Tuesday marks the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. More than 3,000 Vermont military members were called to duty over the years to fight the global war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Forty with Vermont ties were killed in combat. Dozens were injured. And hundreds more suffered invisible wounds like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, WCAX News has uncovered another battle for the vets who made it home.

"He was bigger than life," Pat Cram said.

The 6-foot-2 man of her dreams-- Pat Cram lights up talking about her husband, Mike. Mike Cram was a longtime police officer in Winooski, a practical joker, avid reader, father of two and grandfather of four.

"He loved his family more than life itself," Pat said.

And he loved his country. Mike Cram joined the National Guard right out of high school, rising through the ranks for nearly 30 years to sergeant major, the highest rank for an enlisted soldier. And when duty called, Pat said he was ready to serve an 18-month long deployment to Iraq in 2004.

"He said, 'If anybody has to die over there, I want it to be me.' I was so upset," Pat said. "He said, 'I couldn't live with myself, Pat, if I didn't bring them all home.' That's the kind of person he was."

Then, Mike served a year-long deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. WCAX News caught up with the sergeant major there on a couple of convoys.

They were two frightening and dangerous tours. But Mike brought all of the members of his Vermont military police team home.

"There was no more 24/7 worry," Pat said.

Until Mike got sick.

"It was devastating news," Pat said.

Doctors, at first, couldn't figure out what was wrong. Mike was eventually diagnosed with prostate cancer. It spread and fast. Chemo and radiation didn't work.

"We begged the doctors and said there must be something more you can do. He's only 47 years old. We need him in our family," Pat said.

Mike passed away a year-and-a-half after his diagnosis.

"He shouldn't have died, Darren," Pat said.

Pat worries other soldiers deployed with Mike might get sick, too. In fact, many have.

"It's just unbelievable to have that many in one unit come up with the same thing," said Staff Sgt. T.J. Eaccarino of the Vermont National Guard.

Eaccarino got tested right after Mike's diagnosis. They caught his prostate cancer in time. His prostate was removed.

"My response was it can't be happening again," Eaccarino said.

Of the 19 people in the Vermont military police unit, three got prostate cancer. Two died. Several have early signs of it. Others have unknown illnesses and growths doctors haven't seen before.

"It is scary," Vermont National Guard Sgt. Loretta Stalnaker said. "Not to know what's coming."

Doctors found strange growths on Stalnaker's thyroid.

"You just don't expect you'll have to worry about what happened over there now," Stalnaker said.

It's not the frontline battles they're worried about. It's the burn pits-- massive, open-air trash fires burning all day and all night. Soldiers breathing in the smoke that hung over the bases.

"Pretty much anything being disposed of in the country was being burned in those burn pits," said retired Vermont National Guard Sgt. Scott Bevins.

Trash, medical waste, human waste, metals, tires, everything: There were no landfills, no infrastructure to deal with waste in the middle of makeshift cities in war zones. It's gone on for years with thousands of U.S. military members exposed.

Now, some are calling the burn pits the new Agent Orange. Used in the Vietnam War to kill leaves and eliminate the enemy's cover, hundreds of thousands say Agent Orange made them sick. And like Agent Orange, the U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs has been reluctant to admit there might be a link to illnesses from burn pits.

"I've had quite a battle with the VA to get testing done," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Dixon of the Vermont National Guard.

Doctors struggle to identify what's wrong with Dixon. He has a strange growth in his ribs.

"I think the government needs to step up and say everyone prior to this date we'll do what we can to make sure you're taken care of," Dixon said.

"He still is one of the most professional people I've ever met. I miss him a lot," Vermont National Guard Staff Sgt. Ryan Jacobs said.

Jacobs describes Mike Cram as a mentor who took newbies under his wing and protected his fellow troops.

"Mike was probably one of the best teachers I've had in my entire life," Jacobs said.

And his comrades say he's still teaching now. His death pushed them to advocate for their own health.

"A lot of these soldiers are becoming sick and they are dying," Pat Cram said. "We can't lose another one. We can't."

And Pat has taken on a bit of Mike's role, fighting on their behalf.

"It can't be like Vietnam. We can't let this simmer for 20 or 30 years with people dying," Pat said. "We are going to do everything we can to make sure another family doesn't go through this."

The Department of Veterans Affairs set up a registry to document veterans' possible exposure to burn pits but says more long-term studies are needed. There is a push in Congress to get exposure to burn pits to qualify as a disability.

A senior member of the Vermont National Guard says he's certain burn pits are making people sick. That's part two of our investigation, "Battle Over Burn Pits," Tuesday on the Channel 3 News at 6 p.m.