HENDERSON, Nev. (KLAS) — Mathew Whetnall, 41, survived two tours in Afghanistan and an IED blast, but more than a decade after returning to civilian life, he is battling metastatic brain and lung cancer.
He blames burn pits, small trash-fueled fires spewing toxic chemicals, as the cause.
“Your concerns are the needs of the mission and not necessarily those aftereffects,” Whetnall, a husband and father of two young sons, said from his kitchen table. “I missed my first son being born. My time coming home was my first time to actually meet him for the first time.”
Whetnall enlisted at 26, serving eight years in active duty and later joining the Army Reserves. He deployed twice to Afghanistan: first from 2008 to 2009, where he served mainly in an office role as a forward observer, and then again from 2010 to 2011, where he saw combat.
“I wanted to do something to contribute,” he said. “I’m glad I did it. It gave me the maturity and the perspective I needed in life to kind of set myself where I wanted to be and where I wanted to be with my family. It gave me a lot of good experiences.”
But it also may have given him cancer.
Whetnall survived an IED blast during his second tour and suffered headaches as a result. But in March, after years of pain, it became too much to handle. A trip to the emergency room brought shocking news.
Scans showed golf ball-sized masses on the back of his brain and his lung. Doctors diagnosed him with Stage 4 cancer.
“Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that it’s probably my time in the service,” Whetnall said about the probable cause. Doctors later removed the mass on his brain but left the one on his lung, for now.
The safest and most efficient way to get rid of trash during war is to burn it, Whetnall shared. But those burning batteries, mortar rounds, fuel, even human waste, give off toxic fumes. Lethal smoke evidence shows it’s sickening America’s brave.
“It should not be a controversial issue,” said Dr. Anthony Szema, a clinical associate professor of medicine in the pulmonary and critical care division at Hofstra University. “It is perhaps because it is a financial issue.”
Szema testified before Congress earlier this year about his research, which found particles from burn pits in veterans’ lungs. He is one of the few doctors who will go on-the-record, putting burn pits and cancer together.
“If anybody is questioning whether there is stuff down the airways, at least in our samples from these patients, we’ve definitely seen that,” he said. “We found burn particles in the lungs of these soldiers. These are non-smokers, healthy enough to be deployed, but they go over there and get new onset respiratory symptoms.”
Szema equated what is happening to veterans from wars in the Middle East to that of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and rescue workers at Ground Zero. Months of working on a burning mound of metal and toxic fumes led to cases of cancer among Sept. 11 first responders.
“I think there’s a failure for anybody that could be affected by this,” Whetnall said.
Just like those battles from a decade ago, there is no giving up here, but getting help from the federal government is proving to be a new kind of warfare, Whetnall said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not return repeated requests for comment.
The agency runs a registry for veterans who believe they have been adversely affected by burn pits, but it does not acknowledge a connection. The registry, which launched in 2014 and has hundreds of thousands of names, is to explore “potential health effects of airborne hazard exposures” and “provide information to help us better understand whether long-term health conditions may be related to these exposures,” the website reads.
A handout called “10 Things to Know: Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Exposure,” provided through the department, describes the effects burn pits may have had on veterans.
“Many health conditions related to these hazards are temporary and should disappear after the exposure ends,” it said.
“I truly believe I can power through this,” Whetnall said from his home, which is now command center for this new conflict. “I’m young enough. I’m healthy enough. I’m certainly driven enough to go through this. I want to be here for my family.”
No doctor has to say Whetnall’s cancer is definitively linked to the burn pits, but he and countless other veterans are fighting for that acknowledgement.
Several bills are making their way through Congress to address the issue. Bipartisan legislation, introduced last month, would create a pathway for veterans exposed to burn pits to get VA benefits without having to show a “direct service connection,” according to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand,
“The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act would remove the ‘burden of proof’ from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure,” a joint news release said. “Rather, the veteran would only need to submit documentation that they received a campaign medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War and they suffer from a qualifying health condition.”
More than 3 million veterans may have been exposed to burn pits, the senators said. More than 200,000 veterans have submitted their information into the burn pit registry.