It is every service member’s family’s worst nightmare: the knock at the door of a Casualty Notification Officer accompanied by a military chaplain. We all know what it means. They come bearing grim tidings: “Ma’am, we have some tragic news about your husband.”
The death of a service member doesn’t always look like this. In fact, this scenario is only a minute percentage of the military lives being lost. Most men and women are not killed in action. They are coming home from the front lines carrying more than just baggage. For many families the news comes in a different form. My family is one.
“We’re talking about cancer here.” The words resonated as I tried to grasp what the Colonel was telling me. I listened as the Chief Medical Officer at Tyndall Air Force Base explained that my husband, John, had been admitted for pancreatitis and they had found a mass. He told me to be ready the next morning to fly to Tyndall. As I sat there in my living room with my infant daughter, I looked up at the Christmas tree that would be standing alone on Christmas day. No joyful gathering around it this year, it would stand watch over our quiet house for the next four months. My world shifted beneath me. In that moment, I never could have dreamed how it would completely shatter.
Within weeks, John was handed a death sentence. Surgery would not be an option. We adopted a healthy lifestyle and approached his disease holistically. While this improved his quality of life, in the end, it couldn’t save him. The cancer was too aggressive. Lab testing confirmed the presence of dioxins in his body proving that John was another life lost to the dangerous chemical exposures our military members are encountering daily. My attempts to have the Air Force to acknowledge this fact were denied, even after I launched two Congressional inquiries into the matter.
I believed that I was alone in this, but I was wrong. Sue Rebar, founder of Welcome Home Troops is working to bring awareness to this growing tragedy and to the support the families affected by it. I was astounded when she shared with me the staggering number of victims she has witnessed in the last decade. I have joined with her and we are working to give a voice to the many who suffer silently. We will fight, like those who fought for the victims of Agent Orange. As a nation, we must stand together to give honor to those who have honored us. If we do not speak for them, then who will?