Soldier's parents work to raise awareness of the effects of burn pits

By SCOTT TURNER | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: August 19, 2019

Editor’s note: Master Sgt. Gary Dewitt of Albuquerque died from colon cancer in 2008. Because he served near burn pits in Tikrit, Iraq, his family entered his name into the federal Burn Pit Registry. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who sponsored the bill creating the registry in 2013, recently introduced the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act to foster a more comprehensive understanding of the issue.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gary Dewitt seemed to have a full life ahead of him after returning home to Albuquerque from a yearlong deployment to Iraq in 2005.

The U.S. Army veteran was preparing to wed an old high school friend who had become “the love of his life.” He was working to finish up his master’s degree from the University of Phoenix, where he would graduate with honors.

Little did he, his fiancee (and later wife) Yvonne, and his family know that he was living on borrowed time.

Master Sgt. Gary Dewitt would die from colon cancer on July 27, 2008. Yvonne Dewitt, and his parents, Shirley and Emmit Dewitt, now believe the illness was related to his service near burn pits in Tikrit, Iraq. They want people to know about Gary Dewitt’s story to raise awareness of the issue in hopes that families of soldiers exposed to burn pits can be compensated for the cost of medical care to treat their illnesses.

They aren’t alone in trying to raise awareness. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., sponsored a bill signed into law in 2013 by then-President Barack Obama that created a registry similar to the Agent Orange Registry and the Gulf War Registry.

He introduced the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act this session that seeks to ensure that the burn pit registry is updated with the cause of death of registered individuals, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the health of individuals on the registry, including if any of their health complications or cause of death were the result of burn pit exposure. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“Our government must make sure these patriots receive care for the illnesses and injuries they received in service to our nation,” Udall said in a statement to the Journal. “It’s as simple as that. The ultimate goal of our work on burn pits is to have the government recognize burn pit exposure as a presumptive service connection for medical conditions that result from exposure, so that veterans get the care they deserve without having to jump through hoops.”

Gary Dewitt’s story

Gary Dewitt served in Iraq from December 2004 to December 2005.

“His job was processing injured troops into the hospital,” Shirley Dewitt said. “While he was there, there was a burn pit that was located right outside of the hospital.”

Her son complained of a stench that made him sick most of his deployment.

“He told us when he got back from Iraq how bad it was,” she said. “He said they were burning all body parts, and all trash and everything.”

Burn pits were a common way to get rid of waste at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waste products in burn pits include, but are not limited to: chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics, rubber, wood and discarded food, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Yvonne Dewitt said her husband talked about constant toxic fumes coming from the burn pits.

But none of the Dewitts made a connection when he started complaining about pains in his stomach less than two years after the deployment.

“We didn’t put it together until we started hearing about other people getting sick because of the burn pits,” Yvonne Dewitt said. “I don’t think he even put it together that that was what caused his illness. He just spoke often times about how sick it made him. We never in our minds put one and one together.”

Shirley Dewitt said her son started to complain about being sick in April 2007. She remembers it well, because her son had always been the picture of health.

“When he was a kid, he never complained about anything,” she said. “I never heard Gary say anything about being sick. Gary was such a healthy man. He went to the gym every day. He always ate healthy foods. He got his food from Whole Foods.”

‘Aggressive cancer’

Gary Dewitt at first was diagnosed with acid reflux and other illnesses. He took medications as prescribed, but didn’t get better.

It was after a colonoscopy that the 38-year-old veteran and his family heard the news they didn’t want to hear.

“The doctor said it was a very fast, aggressive cancer,” Shirley Dewitt said. “It was moving fast. It had already spread to all over his liver.”

She said her son took the news well. But Yvonne said the news “was a shock, like a dream.”

Throughout the bout with cancer, the chemo, the surgeries, he tried to get on with life. Gary Dewitt and Yvonne were married shortly after he was first diagnosed. They saw each other at a concert shortly after he returned from Iraq, and things sparked from there. He continued taking classes at the University of Phoenix, graduating with honors. He was invited to speak at his graduation, father Emmit Dewitt said, but he was too sick to attend.

The family sought a second opinion about the Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis. They were initially told there was nothing they could do, but were later informed of a procedure that gave them hope. Gary Dewitt underwent surgery at Baylor in Dallas.

They were told the surgery was a success, and that the cancer was removed. But a full recovery was not meant to be.

“We brought him back home after surgery,” Shirley Dewitt said. “He was running a fever and was throwing up all of the time. We took him back to Baylor. They performed another surgery, but that surgery didn’t work. His cancer started spreading all over.”

During that time, the medical bills were piling up. Emmit Dewitt, a retired Army colonel, said he and his wife spent “thousands and thousands of dollars” on their son’s care.

“We maxed out all of our credit cards,” Shirley Dewitt said.

Gary Dewitt never left Baylor after the second surgery. He died there on his daughter Kayla’s 16th birthday at the age of 39.

1,637 N.M. veterans report being exposed

After the Dewitts came to the conclusion their son’s cancer may have been linked to the burn pits in Iraq, Shirley Dewitt contacted Sen. Udall’s office and later received a letter from an Army general.

She believes she may have been among the first to raise awareness that exposure to the burn pits was making soldiers sick. She wanted to know how many soldiers were getting sick because of the burn pits.

Udall’s office doesn’t have an estimated number of how many service members have contracted illnesses due to burn pit exposure, but the Department of Veterans Affairs does record state-by-state data on how many veterans have registered, and currently 1,637 New Mexico veterans have self-reported, his office said.

In addition to raising awareness of their son’s death’s possible link to burn pits in Iraq, the Dewitts have also honored their son through a scholarship at Menaul School, where Emmit Dewitt taught for more than 18 years. Gary Dewitt was also stationed in Germany and served in Bosnia during his Army career.

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