PORTSMOUTH — Bonnie Peterman graduated from Dover High School with Wayne Perreault in 1961.
Perreault joined the Air Force in 1962 and the couple who had been junior high sweethearts went on to marry other people. They reconnected in 2007 after Perreault’s first wife died of cancer and Peterman’s first marriage ended in divorce, Peterman said this week during an interview in her South Berwick, Maine, home.
Then in April 2008, 51 years after they first met, they became husband and wife.
“We just adored each other, we did everything together, just really couldn’t get enough of each other,” Peterman said. “We were so compatible and so happy and thrilled to have such a happy marriage.”
Perreault joined the Air Force and served in Vietnam, but he also spent years at the 157th Air Refueling Wing at the Pease Air National Guard Base, where he was a master sergeant, his widow said.
The joy they felt after they reconnected ended 14 months after they married in June 2009, when Perreault was diagnosed with a gastric/pancreatic cancer, Peterman said.
Two months later on Aug. 22, Perreault, who had been active and healthy his whole life, died from cancer, despite there being no family history. He was 66.
Peterman recalled getting a call at 4 a.m. on the day her husband died from the hospice where he was being cared for. The nurses told her to get there as quickly as I could.
“I always loved putting my arms around him. And the nurses said ‘would you like to get in bed with him, there’s plenty of room,’” Peterman said as she fought back tears. “So I did and I put my arms around him. I told him it was OK to go. God was waiting for him and that he would be alright. He’d be at peace and he wouldn’t have any more pain.”
“He died 20 minutes later,” she added.
Not only did Peterman lose the love of her life, but her husband never had any “quality time” before he died, she said.
“It was the most perfect relationship I ever had with anybody. I live missing him every day,” she said.
Peterman believes something her husband was exposed to while serving at the 157th Air Refueling Wing caused the cancer that claimed his life.
“I really didn’t put two and two together until your articles started coming out,” Peterman said. “I don’t think there’s any question that what he was exposed to at the base caused his cancer.”
Peterman is one of a growing number of airmen and women who served at the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease, or whose family members served there, who believe their exposure to contaminated water and other dangerous chemicals could have contributed to their cancers.
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 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 states PFAS exposure can harm childhood development, increase cholesterol levels, hurt the immune system and interfere with the human body’s hormones.
Peterman called it “sickening” that people like her husband who survived Vietnam could have ended up dying from what they were exposed to at the guard base in Portsmouth.
Doris Brook recently told Seacoast Sunday she believes her husband, Kendall Brock, a 35-year member of the guard who died in June 2017 from bladder and prostate cancer, contracted cancer from working at the base. She 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 has called for the Air Force, Air National Guard and state of New Hampshire to investigate what she and others believe is an unusually high number of men who served at the base and have been diagnosed with cancer.
Nancy Eaton of Newmarket also believes the Air Force or Guard should investigate the cancer deaths. Her late husband David Eaton was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2012 and died that October. He retired from the Air National Guard in June 2009, after more than 40 years of service with the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease.
Nancy said her husband was the “ultimate American airman,” who loved working for the guard base at Pease.
Brock 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.”
Reached this week, Brock pledged to continue to fight for an investigation into the death of her husband and all the others who served at Pease. She made the pledge despite the fact she has not “heard from a soul” from the Air Force or guard after her story first ran.
“It’s very frustrating. Are they expecting that I’ll just go away or Nancy Eaton or Bonnie Peterman will go away? We’re not going away,” she said Friday. “That’s not going to happen.”
Despite not getting any calls from the Air Force, Brock said she had been told by guardsman that she was recently the subject of a National Guard briefing.
State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan, who attended a Pease Community Assistance Panel (CAP) meeting in September, told members “our cancer program and chronic disease epidemiologist have been in contact with … the health officer for the Air National Guard.”
“We’re actually discussing and clarifying what the questions are,” Chan said about the cancer cases. “I’ve certainly seen some of the news stories around this.”
Brock said she had not heard from Chan, and decided to email him, and he said someone from his office would contact her next week.
Department of Health and Human Services Press Secretary Jake Leon issued a statement Friday in response to an inquiry from Seacoast Sunday. The statement in part said DHHS works with “residents, town officials, the New Hampshire Legislature, and federal officials, including the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), to address concerns related to cancer, chemical contamination, and environmental exposures.”
“We are aware of concerns specifically related to possible Air National Guard occupational exposures …,” he said. “We are in communication with affected local community members and with officials from Pease about this issue and are committed to working with local, state and federal partners to address National Guard veterans’ concerns about cancer and other health issues related to occupational exposures."
LTC Greg Heilshorn, the director of public affairs for the New Hampshire National Guard, said in a statement “we are pursuing a number of different options that would allow us to facilitate a study specifically for our retirees.”
“Since your last story, we've contacted the state Department of Health and Human Services as well as the state epidemiologist to determine if, and how, a study can be conducted that might establish whether a cancer cluster exists on base,” Heilshorn said. “We've also reached out to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for assistance.”
Heilshorn also said the 157th Air Refueling Wing has “convened its Occupational and Environmental Health Working Group” to address the issue “as well as (the) issue of PFOS/PFOA for both our retirees and active members.”
The guard is also awaiting test results on their “base water supply,” Heilshorn said, adding they tested for nine different PFAS chemcials.
“The Wing has also reached out to National Guard Bureau's Surgeon General's Office Bioenvironmental Section for guidance on drafting a request to the ATSDR to conduct a study on PFAS health effects on our airmen,” he said. “In the near term, the Wing plans to survey past and present members to better document their concerns as well as host a town hall-style meeting for retirees that would include federal and state representatives, and the working group.”
“We will continue do everything within our means to address the health concerns of our airmen both past and present,” he said.
In the meantime, Peterman still struggles with the loss of her husband.
She recalled how he decided he would not receive any treatment after being diagnosed with cancer. He had watched his first wife endure treatment for 10 years before she died, Peterman said.
“He said ‘if there’s no cure there’s no reason for me to do anything.’” Peterman said. “We were supposed to grow old together, but then he was gone.”