Sergeant Major dies of Cancer, almost half his platoon from Iraq deployment has diseases

SMJ Robert J. Bowman during his battle with cancer, in which he lost on January 13th, 2013. (U.S. Army) Left: Right: Coleen Bowman visits the grave site of her late husband, Army Sgt. Maj. Robert J. Bowman, on the one-year anniversary of his internment at Arlington National Cemetery. (Coleen Bowman)

When a 44-year-old Army Sergeant Major died of cancer back in 2013, he held the distinction of having been promoted to the rank while courageously battling an unwinnable war against cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of bile duct cancer.

While this story seems rather exceptional, it unfortunately serves to simply open a segway into a much larger issue- around one-third of the men who served in his platoon during the Iraq War developed uncommon cancers and medical conditions.

According to an obituary wrote for him, as much as half of his platoon suffers from “cancers, Krohn’s disease and lung diseases since returning from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The case is nothing new- to this day Vietnam veterans are still coming down with various forms of cancer thanks to toxic substances such as Agent Orange. In later years, over 35% of Desert Storm veterans would become victims of “Gulf War Syndrome,” with the suspected culprit ranging from burning oil wells to depleted uranium and defective vaccines.

However, the alarming rate of toxic exposures in the Global War on Terror-era is becoming a subject of increased interest to lawmakers. However, thanks to slow legislative pace, poor government oversight and the slowness that is atypical for government-funded medical care and studies, will it ever change?

That is part of the question sent forward by Rory E. Riley, a contributor for The Hill, former National Veterans Legal Services Program litigation attorney, Special Olympics coach and founder of Riley-Topping consulting.

“Imagine surviving two deployments in Iraq, constantly dodging bombs and enemy gunfire, only to realize that the air you were once thankful to be able to breathe was making you sick,” Riley wrote, referencing the struggle faced by the late SGM Bowman and his surviving widow, Coleen Bowman.

In her opinion piece, Riley wrote about how the current military toxicology study system is broken and how “we, as a nation, still have not figured out how to take care of those who have come into contact with such toxic exposures during their military service.”

Riley points out that legislation-based change is coming, it seems to be moving at a snail’s pace- and inefficiently.

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which has been agreed to by both the House and the Senate, contains two important provisions regarding veterans who’ve been subject to toxic exposures in the military” she wrote. “Unfortunately, these provisions, which pertain to the declassification of certain Department of Defense documents related to toxic exposures, and requiring the VA to “coordinate efforts” to better understand toxic exposures, do not go far enough toward remedying this problem.”

While the government is reportedly failing to pick up the pace on the increasing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are falling-ill to carcinogen-based ailments that are likely linked to their combat service, private organizations such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) are taking the initiative to step in when Uncle Sam seems to drag his heels.

“In recent years, TAPS has seen an increase in the number of families seeking support after a loved one died from an illness, such as cancer,” said Walter Sweeney, Casework Advocate at TAPS. “It can take years for symptoms to appear, so sometimes it’s difficult for people to recognize the link between service, which may include exposure to environmental toxins, and the death. The primary focus of TAPS efforts will be to ensure the families of service members, including both veterans and those still serving, who have died as a result of these types of illnesses are recognized, cared for and are able to receive all benefits they are entitled.”

For Riley, it seems that the importance of such private successes are reflected in the activism of family members -such as Coleen Bowman- of those who are no longer with us- and that the US Government should strive to be a part of the solution.

“Surviving spouses like Bowman are excited about the undertaking,” she said. “Congress should be too, because advocacy efforts like this will help to better inform future legislative efforts, and save lives.”

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