Army vet dies at 36 from cancer believed to have originated from burn pit exposure
By BEN MUIR | Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. | Published: February 6, 2021
CARTHAGE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Sgt. Ryan G. Mason, a decorated Army veteran who grew up in Carthage and was deployed to Iraq months after 9-11, who was known as a loyal patriot, inspiring brother and romantic husband, died last week after battling cancer that apparently originated overseas.
He was 36.
Sgt. Mason died Jan. 28 with his family by his side at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, after having been diagnosed in 2019 with throat-targeting esophageal cancer. He shattered his prognosis of three months to live in his fight for more moments with his two young children, and to be there for his mother, sister and wife — the three women who helped shape his life.
Sgt. Mason enlisted in the Army at the age of 17 after having been stunned, in disbelief and angered, at what was done to nearly 3,000 Americans and their families on Sept. 11, 2001. He was deployed shortly after boot camp as part of the Patriot Missile Unit, which was sent directly into Baghdad, Iraq, as a signal that a system defending against ballistic missiles could in fact be mobile.
All his family knew as they were glued to a television was that he was at the "tip of the iceberg," which was a common phrase at the time for the center of a combat zone. They remember pleading with him not to enlist, but they would later come to know it was his purpose.
Sgt. Mason was one of many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who was exposed to burn pits while overseas — pits were set up on posts to destroy waste produced by the military. Burn pits could destroy between 60,000 and 85,000 pounds of solid waste per day, and the toxins emitted have long been reported as impacting soldiers.
A study in 2018 by researchers at Augusta University in Georgia found that veterans were more likely to develop serious types of cancer the more they were exposed to burn pits.
More than one million soldiers were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009, when the usage of burn pits became restricted by the United States. Roughly 80% of the soldiers deployed to the two countries were exposed to burn pits, and roughly 60% reported having symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, mucus buildup, joint and abdomen pain, fatigue and malaise, according to a study on burn pit-related illnesses published in 2019 in the Open Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Sgt. Mason acutely fit the mold as one of those soldiers affected by burn pits, and his battle hardly came with resentment toward the Army. Even in his final days, he told his wife, Claudia V. Mason, that the Army wasn't to blame.
"He said, 'I love my country,'" she recalled. "He said he would do it all over again."
Sgt. Mason moved to Carthage when he was 12 years old. Kind and peaceful, Sgt. Mason was raised by strong women, and he wasn't afraid to explore. His sister, Alicia R. Crowley, said he encouraged her to be courageous — to climb that tree, ride that skateboard or take that adventure.
"You see Ryan was always my hero, before he was the world's hero," Ms. Crowley wrote in his eulogy. "I always looked up to Ryan."
Ms. Crowley was at college in Oswego when her brother was deployed. She remembers sending care packages — every day for nine months — containing items like socks, toothpaste or Twizzlers. She was constantly watching coverage of the war, keeping that tip-of-the-iceberg phrase in mind.
"This sounds awful," Ms. Crowley said, "but I failed out of my classes because I was glued to a TV."
She wrote his obituary, as well as his eulogy, articulating how his accomplishments were many, but his family was first — his helping hand was common and his modesty carried on.
"When he passed I felt like half of me was gone," she said, a day before issuing his eulogy. "I knew I had to find the strength to honor such an extraordinary man."
Sgt. Mason first got out of the Army in 2005. Acclimating to civilian life was hard, his sister said. She said he was lost and not himself. This went on for a few months before Sgt. Mason decided to re-enlist and be deployed to the Republic of Korea.
He also met his wife Claudia in 2005. They were both coming out of divorces and not wanting to go out, but their friends dragged them to a bar one night. Mrs. Mason remembers him approaching, but her wanting nothing to do with flirting with anyone. She remembers leaving and then receiving a text from Sgt. Mason, who got her number from a friend, later that night, asking if she made it home safely.
They finally went to dinner due to his persistence, learning that divorce wasn't the only thing they had in common. They both would rather go for a walk, watch a movie or go to dinner than to a club. They were both calm. It started as a friendship and then turned into a relationship. She joked with him that he should've been a woman given how romantic and caring he was.
"When I first met him, he told me, 'Don't be mad at me, but there are three women in my life that I adore,'" Mrs. Mason said. "They were his grandmother, mother and sister."
Mrs. Mason remembers his coughing and fatigue that came shortly after his deployment to Iraq. She remembers sparring with doctors, asking for more tests and writing letter after letter to help convince them his condition was more serious than what they seemed to think.
It was years of this. Sgt. Mason went on to earn a bachelor's degree and become widely sought after in the cyber security world. Even after he died, he had nearly 30 job offers pending.
He and Mrs. Mason had two girls together: Mia, 7, and Sophia, 6.
Sgt. Mason considered himself lucky to have mostly women in his life, she said.
Still, Sgt. Mason was having difficulty with his daily routine. He might pass out carrying groceries into the house.
When he was finally diagnosed in 2019, the cancer had entered Stage 4 and doctors told him initially not to even go through chemotherapy, that he was not going to live long. Mrs. Mason didn't accept that, as she had fought too long as well.
They got a second opinion, she said, and there was some hope, but his strength was the driver. He would go on to live for nearly two years.
Last summer, in serious pain, Sgt. Mason still played with his kids and jumped in the pool. He still drove them to school in weakness. He wanted to be a father for as long as he could, and it was the same in the hospital. He still wanted to make people laugh or smile. He even organized a birthday party for his wife from his room.
"He helped us get through it," she said, "instead of us helping him."
Mrs. Mason said her husband didn't want their kids to know how he died right away. He said he didn't want them to hate the Army.
They know their dad is no longer with them, but Mrs. Mason said that Wednesday night before bed, they prayed for a miracle to bring him back.
Sgt. Mason's mother, Maureen A. Ashcraft, is coping with the death of a son whom she called her life and her baby boy.
She said she took some comfort, if not humor, in what a relative said about her son. An uncle who lives in Carthage told her that he could hardly hit a deer when they used to hunt, but when he got behind a Patriot missile, his aim couldn't have been more true.
They liked to think he was at peace when he died. He was surrounded by the women who shaped him, realizing all along it was the other way around.
"We told him we loved him and that it was OK," his mother said. "As hard as it was to say it was OK, we told him it was and that he put up such a good fight. His job on Earth was done and God had something special for him in heaven."
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