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R. B. Stuart

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Leukemia: A Soldiers Souvenir From the Burn Pits of Iraq

Posted: 02/03/09 10:13 AM ET

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In 2003 Army SSG. Steven G. Ochs deployed from the Scholfield Barracks in Hawaii to Iraq. At the time, the 27 year-old Long Beach California native departed the States in excellent health. The Avenger Section Sergeant was an MOS -- 14 Sierra, Paratrooper and would be utilizing his sharpened skills in the sand box of Iraq -- maneuvering through Baghdad with precision. Over the next 12 to 15 months SSG. Ochs would find uncertainty amongst the forest of tents in Camps Liberty and Loyalty.

The latter was apropos for this dedicated soldier who gravitated to the Armed Forces in 1994 at the mere age of 18. His life---his love was the military, so being called to fight in the War of Iraq was a selfless duty he accepted willingly. But he hadn't anticipated that his tours, three in total from 2003 to 2007, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, would eventually take his life. The ultimate sacrifice for a soldier, for his country....is....death.

During those four years in 12 - 15 month intervals, SSG. Ochs escaped roadside bombs, incoming missile attacks and friendly fire, but when corresponding with his family he complained of ailments; from colds, major fatigue, headaches, sinus problems and a sore throat. As a result of continual explosions he experienced some hearing loss, and during his tour in Afghanistan contracted TB from his exposure to the masses of dead Iraqi [soldiers] bodies.

Although SSG. Ochs seemed impenetrable, he could not sidestep the invisible weapon that would course through his bloodstream five months after his third tour ended. In September 2007 while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, at the age of 31, SSG. Ochs was diagnosed with a rare Cancer, Acute Myeloid Leukemia [AML]. His family said he remained positive throughout the entire time. "He didn't accept defeat -- he knew that he would survive," said his sister Stacy Pennington. The culprit for her brothers Cancer she believes is from the exposure of chemicals while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. "From the emissions of the burn pits and the depleted Uranium," Pennington added. 2009-02-03-steveochsmedals.jpg

The US Air Force document below describes burn pits as, 'the smoke hazards of burning plastics, Styrofoam, paper, wood, rubber, non-medical waste, some metals, some chemicals such as paints & solvents etc.' Listing 21 possible contaminates associated with the burning was evident in [USAF] air samples. The toxic aromatic cocktail they were/are inhaling include the highly carcinogenic sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene.

In December 2006, Lieutenant Colonel, Darrin L. Curtis a Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander for the Air Force circulated a Department of The Air Force warning memorandum [on Burn Pit Health Hazards] from Balad Air Base in Iraq. Stating, 'The burn pit at Balad AKA Anaconda has been identified as a health concern for several years in numerous after action reports.' During the Environmental Health Site Assessments conducted January - April 2006 by the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine, 'open burning of solid waste was identified as the number two most common environmental health finding.' Balad's burn pit was quoted as being, "The worst environmental site I have personally visited, and that includes 10 years working Clean-up for the Army and DLA."

In items three and four, LT. COL. Curtis continues, 'It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years without significant engineering controls being put in place.' He outlines, 'This interim fix should not be years, but more in the order of months.' Adding in section five, 'In my professional opinion, there is an acute health hazard for individuals.' Continuing, 'I base this assessment on the data I have reviewed and on-site smoke plume assessments.' He ends by stressing, "I am writing this memo to translate what I see is an operational health risk to those that have been, are now, and will be, deployed to Balad.'

Concurring on the memo is Chief of Aeromedical Services, LT. COL. James R. Elliott. 'In my professional opinion the known carcinogens and respiratory sensitizers released into the atmosphere by the burn pit, present both an acute and a chronic health hazard to our troops and our local population.' Pennington informs that her brother SSG. Ochs was there 'quite a bit' and he mentions the Anaconda 'throughout his journals.'

Upon SSG. Ochs third tour ending in April 2007, within weeks he began feeling extremely tired with severe colds that seemed to erupt immediately. The symptoms lasted through to June so he went to Womack Medical Facility at Fort Bragg where they performed blood tests that came back normal. At the end of June still not feeling well he went back WMF. They ran another series of blood tests this time it showed an elevation in his white blood cell count, (more than double of normal range), and his red blood cell count tripled. The Doctors sent him home with Ibuprofen.

Although SSG. Ochs showed early signs of Leukemia at the end of June 2007, it was not diagnosed until September 2007. When Gout developed on his ankles and large lumps (like pimples) tarred his head and neck, compounded by a fever and severe flu like symptoms, it brought him to the Western Wake Hospital ER in Cary, NC. They discovered that the "pimples" were actually Leukemia crystals.

"We are devastated," Pennington grieved. "Three months passed us by...the first three crucial months of his Leukemia. If we knew early on it might have made all the difference -- but we will never know."2009-02-03-ochshospital.jpg

In September 2007 after the Doctors at Wake diagnosed him with Leukemia they transferred him to Duke University Hospital where a team of doctors officially diagnosed him in October 2007 with AML. It came on 'fast and furious.' He turned 32 that November. And would spend the next nine months there undergoing treatments.

Pennington stated, "The land over there [Iraq/Afghanistan] is infested with a combination of depleted Uranium, emissions from the burn pits and the burning of oil." She remembered conversations with her brother, "He would not give many details but would say, 'Sis, I have been exposed to a lot of chemicals in the Middle East. You just have no idea.' " To validate his claims SSG. Ochs gave his father Klaus Ochs munitions containing depleted Uranium. 2009-01-31-8SteveDUAmmo.JPG

The Ochs family says several in his unit confirmed they worked continuously in and around burn pits. "Our country needs to look at the medical care our men and women are receiving when they return from their tours in the Middle East," Pennington argues. "The military has been actively treating the mental side-effects from war, but not treating the physical. Procedures need to be enacted to screen and monitor the physical affects of dangerous chemical emissions they are exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan."

When the Ochs' questioned the doctors at Duke University, their thoughts were that his Leukemia was due to chemical exposure in Iraq. But, they added, as Doctors could not prove it and would not go on record, while emphasizing that his chemical exposure was the cause for the Cancer.

SSG. Ochs underwent four rounds of Chemotherapy at Duke -- his wife, Melissa Rae Ochs and the family by his side, military visits from Captains and a Chaplain brought comfort to the young soldier and new father of a baby girl, Annelise Rae. But it wasn't enough to save him. On July 11, 2008 the day before he died, his younger brother, Chief Brian Smith spoke with him. He recalled asking, "Steve do you have any regrets?" His brother replied, "No." He inquired again, "Do you feel everything is okay with Annelise? [his 3 year-old daughter]." SSG. Ochs said, "As long as she is okay then I am at peace."

Pennington admitted, "The doctors gave us no indication that death was near. They said things did not 'look good' if the final round of Chemo didn't work. So Steve knew yet felt, he had more time to make his final wishes known."

After 14 years in the military, at the age of 32, Army SSG. Steven G. Ochs passed away in front of his sister and mother, Joanne Ochs on July 12, 2008, minutes after being transferred to ICU at Duke University. His clandestine four year military mission in Iraq/Afghanistan left behind not only a family, but journals and 75 pounds of medical records from his care at Duke, as well as sorrow, loss, confusion and dedication from his family to have his unfortunate story told.

As his family continues to battle the military for his Army medical records, a battle that many Veteran's and their family's have faced for decades well before the Vietnam war. Lost or destroyed medical records has been a military tactic used against soldiers that may try to validate their combat related illness. Since the DoD will not acknowledge or pay for 'war wounds,' they simply destroy the evidence in the soldiers medical records, so there is no legal recourse for the soldiers or family's to prove their military health history.

And with undisclosed Cancer cases rising in the military with this war, the DoD stands firm that Cancer is 'not a war wound.' Therefore the DoD will not be held financially responsible for these soldiers, so it's easier to loose or destroy records. Many stricken soldiers (including CPT. CH. Fran E. Stuart who has been waiting over two years at WRAMC) feel the lengthily wait of a year or more to state their claims in front of the Military Medical Review Boards for benefits and retirement -- is simply another military stalling ploy of more red [white and blue] tape. The soldiers share the sentiment that the DoD would rather have them die waiting -- than appear before the med boards.

The Ochs' mission: to bring this issue to light and educate the public on what is happening with our troops as they return from serving their country. They hope through the work of Kerry Baker, Advocacy Director for Disabled American Veterans [DAV], journalists and other advocates who have taken on this important task of exposing depleted Uranium and burn pits to the American public , that congress will act. And in doing so aiding thousands of military personnel serving the country.

SSG. Steven Ochs, a brother, a husband, a father and son is part of the rapidly growing category of unspoken casualties from the Iraq war. "My brother was a strong man who was proud of his military career. We have a problem with chemical exposure in Iraq, the combination of the burn pits and the depleted Uranium is sending our military personnel home with a ticking time bomb. In the United States we have rules and regulations on how we conduct the business of destroying our waste materials. We need to uphold those laws while we are occupying foreign countries," stressed Pennington.

"Please know that we are proud and grateful to all of our military," Pennington emphasized. "My youngest brother Brian still serves this country [an Aviation Bownsain Mate Handle Chief] and will continue to for his entire career. This situation has not changed his commitment to this country. My family just wants this country to acknowledge the problem and act on behalf of all who serve. They deserve no less."

"We cannot bring my brother back," Pennington mourned. "He would have been first to sacrifice himself for the greater good, especially to save other's who serve this country. To quote a soldier that served under him and who spoke at his funeral; '[In Iraq] Steve would lead as point man every time to ensure that all his troops would come home alive.'" If only the U. S. Military took as much care with its troops....

Authors Note:As we lose some of our most highly esteemed investigative journalists to cancer, is there a possibility embedded journos or those there covering the war have been exposed through inhalation and/or ingestion as much as the soldiers? How many have been stricken with Cancer after being embedded with troops in Iraq/Afghanistan from 2003 - 2008? ABC's Peter Jennings in 2005 from Lung Cancer - CBS's Ed Bradley in 2006 from Leukemia - ABC's Leroy Sievers in 2008 from Colon Cancer. Sievers was embedded with Ted Kopple in 2003 with the Third Infantry Division during the invasion of Iraq.