THE BLOG
10/20/2008 03:34 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

An Unpaid Debt of Honor

A few weeks ago my nephew John McNamara asked me to write about the failure of the U.S. Congress as well as the New York City government to help the sick and the dying among the city's first responders to the 9/11 catastrophe. So many firefighters like John, as well as police and others who worked at the cleanup at Ground Zero have come down with malignant tumors, as well as pulmonary and respiratory diseases, and yet they and their families have been left to struggle with their life-threatening illness on their own.

I was reluctant to write an article at this time fearing that the election news and the recession would overwhelm the personal story of brave men and women overlooked by an ungrateful government. But will there ever be a good time to write this piece? I doubt it. And a debt of honor that is owed to these first responders will go unpaid, lost in the clamor of the large events that have overtaken the news cycle.

John, a fireman who volunteered not only at Ground Zero but at the post Katrina cleanup, has been in and out of Sloan Kettering for the past few years undergoing various forms of chemotherapy and surgery for several life-threatening cancers that can only have come from the toxic areas in which he worked. All kinds of smokescreens are thrown up about the cause of these illnesses by the government but the number and severity of the cases among otherwise young and healthy men and women can only lead to the conclusion that their work in the cleanup was the cause of their sufferings. It's a double whammy. First, the government lied about the dangers to their health that they faced, and later, when the consequences of those lies resulted in grave illness and death, the government turned its back on them.

Although he is still a young man, John has been fighting his myriad tumors supported only by his wife Jen and his concerned friends and family. John is in a rare period when the results of his chemo and other treatments have not been brutalizing his life, and he uses this time as an activist in the cause of other gravely sick and dying first responders.

When asked by a local newspaper what he would like his two year old son Jack to remember about him he replied, "I want Jack to know that I fought like hell to stay alive for him so that he would know his father." With some luck and the best medical treatment that fight will continue. Trust me on this; despite all he has suffered John has a great sense of humor - something that has helped see him through this difficult period. He is not all gloom and doom but he has a justifiable anger against the neglect that he and the other first responders have received. It amazes me that our government can spend billions bailing out the crooks and liars who brought about the calamitous recession we are facing, yet has zero money for the brave men and women who worked tirelessly in the aftermath of 9/11. There have been a few good people like Representative Caroline Mahoney who have taken up this cause. But the egregiously posturing Rudy Giuliani who wears 9/11 as a tattoo on his forehead, and the "Give me my Third Term" Mayor Bloomberg can seemingly find little room in their hearts for these neglected and deserving men and women.