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As cancer kills another Biloxi Air Force reservist, his unit demands answers

Survivors look for help as military cancer deaths rise

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) provides comfort and care to those grieving the death of a military loved one, with services available at no cost to surviving families and loved ones.
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Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) provides comfort and care to those grieving the death of a military loved one, with services available at no cost to surviving families and loved ones.

Current and former Air Reserve Technicians at Keesler Air Force Base, in Biloxi, Mississippi, are raising the alarm that chemicals they were exposed to may be tied to a number of deaths and illnesses among their fellow airmen.

“One thing I told my dad ... I have never seen so many people in one squadron pass away from cancer,” said retired Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Tamla McGhee, 45, who served with the 403rd Fabrication Flight from 2001 to 2012.

The unit is comprised of about 15 or more reservists at a time who work on C-130J “hurricane hunters” and other aircraft removing corrosion, welding and drilling new parts, blasting off old paint and repainting the aircraft.

McGhee and two other members of the unit talked to McClatchy after the loss two weeks ago of Air Force Reserve Tech Sgt. Sean Delcambre, who died Aug. 5 at age 34 from advanced-stage Hodgkin’s disease and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which are blood cancers.

Up to his final hours, Sean and his wife Amy Delcambre, 36, had remained positive about his ability to beat cancer. It was another tragic loss after their son Jude was born prematurely in 2014 and died the day after Christmas at 33 weeks.

Two weeks after her husband died, Delcambre and members of Sean’s unit are speaking out to try to raise awareness about what they suspect has threatened the health of members of the 403rd: exposure to hexavalent chromium, a chemical linked to cancer that was highlighted by the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

“My goal is to pursue justice on behalf of these people who are sick, their families,” Delcambre said. “Is it because the building is old? Is it because we have bad practices?”

Hexavalent chromium exposure can occur during industrial welding and paint spraying, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Safety filters for the building were not working properly for years and the paint spraying took place in open bays, getting into all parts of the unit’s workspace, even the break room, said Tech Sgt. Larry McDonald, 40, who worked with Sean Delcambre.

Air Force documents obtained by McClatchy show that inside the unit’s workspace contamination by unsafe levels of the potentially harmful substances dated back to at least 2011 for lead and 2012 for hexavalent chromium. McDonald provided paperwork to McClatchy on an inspector general complaint he filed in 2016 about the lack of a working filtration system to deal with the chemicals.

The existence of the Air Force documents reporting above-acceptable levels of hexavalent chromium in the break room was first reported by local Biloxi TV station WLOX.

A spokeswoman for Keesler Air Force Base said it is working to meet OSHA’s recommended fixes.

“We have instituted OSHA approved mitigating processes to ensure the safety of our members until state-of-the-art upgrades can be made to our facilities,” Jessica Kendziorek, a spokeswoman for the base, said. New machinery used for removing paint was installed in 2016, she said, but “is currently not in use, until a climate controlled environment can be obtained.”

McDonald said the delay in fixes left him and his family at risk. “I’m taking hexavalent chromium or lead home on my clothes, or in my car, or home to my family,” he said.

“This isn’t the first person in our unit, actually in our (403rd Fabrication) flight to actually pass away and nobody seems to understand why, other than ‘they got sick,’” said Tech Sgt. Shannon Jackson, 43, who worked with Sean Delcambre at Keesler. “You are sitting there wondering when you are going to be next, or which one of your friends are going to be next.”

Jackson, who is now assigned to Andrews Air Force Base, said while he’s doing the same job, the safety procedures and requirements for personal protective gear at Andrews are more stringent, which makes him wonder why the same standards weren’t in place at Keesler.

“Not once do I ever remember getting screened for heavy metal contamination or even getting told about it. I didn’t really find out about hexavalent chromium until I came to Andrews,” Jackson said.

Speaking out now is about making sure “no other airmen in the Air Force are exposed to this again,” Jackson said.

If a link is identified between the exposure and the cancer deaths, birth complications and respiratory illnesses that the technicians have faced, getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize it will be difficult, said attorney Glenn Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore which specializes in veterans’ disability benefits.

Air Reserve Technicians work as civilians for the military during the week, then report one weekend a month and two weeks a year as part of the Air Force Reserve. The members are required to wear their military uniforms even when on civilian status. But during their civilian workweek, they aren’t active duty military, so they don’t qualify for medical care from the military’s medical system.

“Establishing in-service exposure to substances and obtaining a medical nexus opinion are critical pieces of evidence,” Bergmann said,“because VA will most likely argue that the cancer was caused by something else.”

Keesler spokeswoman Kendziorek said that due to medical privacy laws, the base could not “release information about our airmen’s health-related issues. However, we can say that at this time, there have been no positive correlations made between health issues and the work environment in the 403rd’s fabrication shop.”

Sean Delcambre fought both blood cancers for a year, but the final weeks were swift, Amy Delcambre said.

They had a gathering Aug. 3 with extended family. He was bright and alert and then that evening he had a seizure. Once in the hospital, Amy knew Sean was not coming home.

On his final night, Amy stayed up with him and played “On Eagle’s Wings,” which was one of Sean’s favorite spiritual songs.

“I said, ‘squeeze my hand if you want to hear On Eagle’s Wings.’ And he squeezed it really hard.”

Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”
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