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'Ultimate American airman' among cancer deaths plaguing troops from former air base

High oblique aerial view, looking north of Pease Air National Guard Base. This joint use civil and military airfield is home to the 157th Air Refueling Group flying KC-135R Stratotankers for the New Hampshire Air National Guard.

By JEFF MCMENEMY | Portsmouth Herald | Published: August 26, 2018

PORTSMOUTH (Tribune News Service) — David Eaton was the "ultimate American airman," who loved working for the Air National Guard at Pease, his widow Nancy Eaton said this week.

"It turned out to just be his niche that he really liked, it's a brotherhood like police and fire," Eaton said of her husband's career in the Air National Guard. "He just absolutely loved it and it was a wonderful life for us."

David retired from the guard in June 2009, after more than 40 years of service to his country, Eaton said.

A little more than three years later, David called his wife in July 2012 from the Air Museum in Manchester where he volunteered. He told her he thought the whites of his eyes were yellow, she said during an interview in her Newmarket home.

"He came home and I took him to the emergency room," she said.

Doctors there told him his binary duct had closed down and "that's what was causing the jaundice," Nancy Eaton said.

Doctors scheduled him for surgery on Aug. 6, 2012, but told him "there's probably a 90 percent chance you're going to be fine," she said.

On the couple's 40th wedding anniversary, doctors wheeled him in to an operating room at Massachusetts General Hospital, for what was expected to be a five-hour surgery, Eaton said.

"Then maybe a couple of hours into it, the surgeon came down where they have you waiting ... I saw the surgeon come and I had my son with me and I just said I don't think it's good, and I was right," she said.

The doctor told them the cancer had spread to his liver, Eaton said. "They weren't able to do what they wanted to do, but they did cut the nerves in his abdomen so he wouldn't have any pain."

When her husband awoke the next afternoon, he lifted his head, said "what happened to the 90 percent" and then went back to sleep, she said.

Later in her husband's six-day hospital stay, a priest came to visit the couple.

"He said, 'You know with long-term military people, very often you see them with cancer, that's not at all uncommon,'" Eaton said.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said she has heard "heartbreaking stories from family members of former Pease Air Force Base workers who got sick or passed away."

"These tragedies underscore the acute need for families to get answers about the potential health implications from PFAS exposure," Shaheen said Friday.

An amendment Shaheen wrote was included in the 2018 Defense Reauthorization Act, which created the first-ever nationwide health study. Shaheen has also introduced bipartisan legislation to create a national database for service members and veterans experiencing health problems potentially due to PFAS exposure.

The bi-partisan PFAS Registry Act would allow military personnel and veterans to receive updates on recent scientific developments on the effects of PFAS exposure and information on what resources may be available to address their health concerns.

Airmen with cancer

David Eaton lost his battle to pancreatic cancer in October 2012, just after he turned 63.

Like a growing number of people who served or whose family members served at the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease, Nancy Eaton believes her husband's exposure to contaminated water at the guard base and other dangerous chemicals could have contributed to the cancer that claimed his life.

"I began to think about it when Father Bob said what he said about long-term military men and cancer," Eaton said.

"There was firefighting foam, there was deicing fluid, you're getting it on you, you're breathing it in, and earlier in his career they used to X-ray the planes and he'd walk in front of the X-rays too," she said. "And at that time in his career, nobody knew about the groundwater."

The city of Portsmouth closed the polluted Haven well at the former air base in May 2014 after the Air Force found high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, in the well. The Environmental Protection Agency in May 2016 set permanent health advisories for PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA at 70 parts per trillion.

In addition to being a suspected carcinogen, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has stated PFAS exposure can harm childhood development, increase cholesterol levels, hurt the immune system and interfere with the human body's hormones.

She recalled one of her husband's fellow airmen being diagnosed with a brain tumor about 20 years ago. The man had surgery and returned to work, Eaton said, only to collapse on a winter day along the flight line.

"My husband got down on the ground and held his head while he died," she said.

She believes the airmen who have suffered these cancers should be compensated, and she also would like to see the Air Force try to find out what is causing the cancers.

"It would be nice if they do something, but I think the damage has already been done, once somebody is terminally ill, what are you going to do about it?" she asked.

David Eaton worked with Kendall Brock, a 35-year member of the guard, who died in June 2017 from bladder and prostate cancer. His wife, Doris Brock, told Seacoast Sunday last week that she too believes her husband's exposure to 12 different chemicals on the base that were known carcinogens - along with drinking contaminated water - caused his cancer.

"I truly believe that that is the cause of not only his, but certainly several other people that I'm very close to who have died of cancers," Doris Brock said.

She also said among her circle of friends at the base, 62 people have been diagnosed with cancer. "And 39 of those 62 are dead," she said. "I think that's just crazy."

She wants the Air Force to launch an investigation to determine why airmen and women are getting sick, what can be done to prevent that, and how it can help people who have already been diagnosed with cancers.

Multiple calls made to the public affairs office at the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the National Guard at the former Pease Air Force Base over the last week were not returned. A call to the state office last week was also not returned.

A representative from the public affairs office of the Secretary of the Air Force said they couldn't respond to a request for comment to meet this story's deadline.

Dying around him

Gary Enos served with the National Guard at Pease for 30 years, retiring in October 2013. Like David Eaton, Enos loved his time in the Air Force.

"I love the Air Force and I'm not going to sit here and disparage them because they gave me a great life," Enos said.

But Enos, who lives in Gorham, Maine, has also been diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer. He too believes there's an unusually high number of guardsmen at Pease who have been diagnosed with cancer, and it's something he realized early on.

"My whole career I've been watching my friends and colleagues die around me," he said in an interview this week. "When you work with people for 30 years, it becomes a super tight-knit organization. Right from early on in my career, friends and colleagues have been dying of cancer."

The retired 61-year-old master sergeant worked in air-craft maintenance during his career, including on the phase inspection dock.

"We worked with the KC-135 tankers," Enos said. "We pretty much tore them down, inspected them from nose to tail, inside and out."

He recalled receiving the list of 12 chemicals from Doris Brock that are proven carcinogens.

"I looked at it and there's engine oils, carbon remover, paint strippers, jet fuel, and I realized we worked with just about every chemical that Doris had on her list," he said. "We worked around a billion chemicals."

Earlier in his career, airmen just didn't have the knowledge or concern about dangerous chemicals people do now, Enos said.

"I was young and in the Air Force and everyone thought they were indestructible," he said.

He too believes his exposure to the water and the chemicals could have caused his cancers, including his bladder cancer for which he had surgery in February 2017.

"It's something that you can't ever prove ... but it does seem all of our cancers seem to be organ related," Enos said.

He noted David Eaton was his mentor and helped him get his first full-time job at Pease.

Enos too called for an Air Force investigation.

"Basically, I endorse Doris' effort to get answers to these questions, not to lay blame on anybody, but the questions need to be answered," Enos said. "It would be a great thing to save lives. I'm not looking for any kind of monetary this or that, and I'm not blaming anybody."

©2018 Portsmouth Herald, N.H.
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