Veteran exposed to toxic burn pit smoke dies of cancer after misdiagnosis lawsuit settlement

U.S. Special Forces and Afghan Special security forces work and train together in eastern Afghanistan, winter 2019- 2020.


HARTFORD, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont soldier who was exposed to smoke from pits used to burn waste while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq has died of cancer, just months after reaching a settlement with the federal government over his diagnosis.

Wesley Black, 36, of Hartford, died Sunday.

Black, a Vermont National Guard veteran and local firefighter, had sued the White River Junction VA Medical Center for failing to diagnose him with colon cancer after he lost 75 pounds and suffered from severe intestinal issues, the Valley News reported.

While serving overseas, Black said he frequently breathed in smoke from pits used to incinerate human and medical waste, plastic water bottles, ammunition and chemicals on military bases. Doctors incorrectly diagnosed him with irritable bowel syndrome but when he later ended up being taken to the emergency room, a colonoscopy revealed he had stage 4 cancer, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, a physician with the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston wrote in a 2018 letter that Black’s symptoms were early signs of cancer that developed as a result of the burn pit exposure and if further investigation had been done, the cancer could have been detected sooner, the newspaper reported.

Black reached a $3 million settlement this summer. The case closed on Oct. 19. An email was sent to the VA seeking comment.

After graduation from Malden Catholic High School, Black enrolled in Norwich University and enlisted into the 3rd Battalion of the 172nd (Mountain) Regiment for the Vermont Army National Guard, according to his obituary. He deployed to Ramadi, Iraq in January 2005 for an extended tour. After returning home to Vermont, Black worked at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, VT where he earned his basic and advanced military mountaineer qualifications, graduated sniper school and completed his basic non-commissioned officer course. He later served a third tour of duty in Afghanistan and then returned to Vermont to serve in the Vermont National Guard and met his future wife, Laura Kilgannon.

Black, according to his obituary, was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor, two Purple Hearts and the Army Commendation with Valor among other accolades.

“He used the tragic hand he was dealt as a platform from which to raise awareness about the harmful effects of burn pit exposure,” Dan Perrone, one of Black’s attorneys, said by email to the newspaper on Monday. “His heroics and advocacy have and undoubtedly will continue to save lives.”

Two years ago, Black advocated for a Vermont bill to raise awareness about the health impacts of burn pits and Gov. Phil Scott signed the measure into law in June 2019.

After 9/11, open pits were the predominant method of waste disposal on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010, Congress banned the pits except where there aren’t feasible alternatives.

“The Department of Defense has now closed out most burn pits and is planning to close the remainder,” the VA website states.

A federal court ruled in 2018 that military veterans who claim that the use of open burn pits during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused myriad health problems could not move forward with dozens of lawsuits against a military contractor, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal the following year.



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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.