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‘39 of the 62 are dead’: High cancer rate among NH guardsmen raises questions

Jill Brady | Seacoast Online
Jill Brady | Seacoast Online
Doris Brock's husband, Kendall Brock, who served in the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the National Guard at the former Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, died of bladder and prostate cancer.

PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — Kendall Brock served 35 years with the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the National Guard at the former Pease Air Force Base before retiring.

In 2015, the retired chief master sergeant was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder and prostate cancer, his wife, Doris Brock, said in a recent interview.

“His doctor, his specialist, thought he had been exposed to Agent Orange and Kendall was never in Vietnam,” Doris said. “So that kind of raised some questions because he told us that the kind of cancer he had was very, very consistent with what he has seen with Agent Orange victims.”

By the time her husband was diagnosed, “there wasn’t anything we could do,” Doris said.

“He was given three to five years and he only lived two,” she said.

Kendall died June 30, 2017, at age 67.

Before his death, Doris had to watch her husband of 46 years go through agonizing chemotherapy treatments during the final two years of his life.

“That first treatment, it was a killer, it really was,” she said. “I watched him just deteriorate in a very short period of time. On his second treatment … four weeks later he was so weak and so debilitated he had difficulty walking. We had to take him for hydration every day at the hospital. He couldn’t keep anything down and you just watched him melt away and that was really tough.”

The Brocks lived in Candia while Kendall served his country at the guard base, but they moved to Colebrook when he retired.

During his 35 years with the guard, Kendall worked with petroleums, oils and lubricants at the guard base and also worked on aircraft maintenance.

Doris said her husband worked with 12 different chemicals on the base that were known carcinogens. She believes that exposure – along with his exposure to water contaminated with PFAS chemicals – caused his cancer.

She also contends, and others who worked at the guard base share her concerns, that there is an unusually high number of people at the 157th who ended up being diagnosed with 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 said. “They’ve all been related cancers, their pancreas, their liver, their bladder, kidney.”

‘39 of those 62 are dead’

She stressed that among her tight-knit “small circle of friends” who became like family to the couple, 62 people have been diagnosed with cancer.

“And 39 of those 62 are dead,” she said. “I think that’s just crazy.”

Not only did her husband and other guardsmen fill the planes with jet fuels, but they used the fuel to clean with.

“They would use them to clean aircraft parts, their tools, to spray the aircraft,” Doris said.

She began conducting research about the former Pease Air Force Base when her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“I had already known about the Pease water contamination … then we were noticing there were stories about the state of New Hampshire having the highest bladder cancer rate in the country, that there’s more children cancers here,” she said.

That led her to think “we have a definite issue” here.

Submitted photo courtesy of Portsmouth Herald
Submitted photo courtesy of Portsmouth Herald
Chief Master Sergeant Kendall W. Brock is seen here at his retirement ceremony in 2005 at the Air National Guard Base at Pease in New Hampshire.

The city of Portsmouth closed the polluted 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.

Dealing with her husband’s cancer diagnosis and then his death two years later was exacerbated by the Department of Veterans Affair’s decision to deny Kendall’s claim for disability, claiming it wasn’t work related.

“I’m outraged … we weren’t looking to go to the VA and be serviced by the VA, we had insurance … but for (them to deny) the veteran’s disability at that time, I really felt that he deserved that,” she said. “They all deserve that.”

“I just think that the Guard is the forgotten population in this whole thing here,” she added.

Calls made to the public affairs office at the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the National Guard at the former Pease Air Force Base about the issue were referred to the state office for comment. A call to the state office on Friday was not immediately returned.

Retired Col. Richard Martell was the wing commander at the 157th Air Refueling Guard Base from May 2001 to the end of 2010. He served at the guard base for 30 years, and acknowledged people did talk at times about the number of cancers guardsmen suffered.

“It wasn’t everyday chatter but if someone got ill, it would crop up,” Martell said during an interview this week.

He does not know if guardsmen and women he worked with became sick with cancers because of what there were exposed to at the base. But Martell does believe it’s a good idea for the guard to take a look at the concerns raised by Doris Brock and others.

“Certainly, some kind of screening and tracking is a good idea,” he said.

That could help determine if there is or has been an environmental trigger to the cancers there, “so we don’t put more people at risk,” Martell said.

Shared concerns

Steve and Valerie Morgan of Dover both served in the 157th Air National Guard. Steve retired as a chief master sergeant and Valerie retired as senior master sergeant.

Like Doris Brock, they are concerned with what they believe is an unusually high number of people who served at the 157th who have been diagnosed with cancer.

“Especially the ones like us that are retired (and noticed that) a good number of our compadres have passed away due to cancer,” Steve said. “Probably 30 or so people have passed away.”

Valerie shares her husband’s concerns. “We have gone to numerous funerals for our comrades,” she said. “Some of them didn’t even get to their retirement.”

The couple say they both drank the contaminated water at Pease and had their blood tested. Their blood levels for PFAS both came back elevated.

Valerie was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing treatment.

“I have concerns that drinking that contaminated water may have contributed to it,” she said.

Steve says he does not know if either the contaminated water or chemicals people were exposed to at Pease contributed to the cancers.

“We’re just concerned about the issue of were we contaminated by bad water, bad soil or did our tenure working on the air base affect us somehow,” Steve said.

He would like to see an independent agency come in and study the issues at the base and the cancers his friends and comrades have been diagnosed with.

“I’d like to know if there is some correlation between the drinking water, the soil and is there something unique to that area that employees have been exposed to,” Steve said. “Is that a factor in some of these cancers that have been cropping up?”

A history of contaminants

Doris Brock wants people in the Pease community to understand “that this ground contamination has been going on for a very, very long time.”

“Even though everyone is well today … I truly believe there are long latency periods for cancers to develop and that they need to be aware and see their doctors for any small sign something is happening,” she said. “For us it was too late, but if you find out early, then you’re better off.”

She also wants the Air Force and Air National Guard to reach out to people who have served at Pease and check their medical histories.

She believes the military owes it to the people who served their country to determine “what can we do to make it better or how can we help the people who don’t know they’re affected yet.”

“Until it touches you personally it’s like ‘oh that’s a real shame’ … but you kind of go on with your daily life and just forget about it,” she said. “Then when it touches you personally it’s a whole new ballgame.”

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