PORTSMOUTH — More than 200 people who turned out for a meeting at the 157th Air Refueling Wing heard story after story about guardsmen who died from cancer or suffered with other health ailments after serving at the Pease Air National Guard base.
The guard hosted a “listening session” Friday afternoon to hear the health concerns of retirees, their widows and families, along with active duty guardsmen.
Led by Doris Brock, who lost her husband Kendall Brock, a 35-year member of the guard who died in June 2017 from bladder and prostate cancer, a group of widows and retirees have pushed the Air Force to conduct a health study because of what they believe is an unusually high number of cancers at the base.
Brock reminded the people in attendance that it took 35 years before the Veterans Administration sought presumptive disability status for veterans who served at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina with acknowledged water contamination.
“I don’t want to wait that long for us. It has to be faster,” Brock said. “We’ve lost a lot of good people.”
She believes her husband’s exposure to 12 different chemicals on the base known to be carcinogens – along with drinking contaminated water at the former air base – caused his cancer.
She told the crowd to remember that one person can make a difference.
“We were just a group of a few spouses who were interviewed in this newspaper and look at the people sitting in this room today,” she said about herself and other widows who spoke to Seacoast Sunday. “I have to tell you I’m blown away.”
Patricia Brodeur-Gammon lost her husband Roger Brodeur to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 1997. She believes her husband’s service at the guard base caused his cancer. Brodeur, who served at the base from 1975 to 1998, spent the last two years of his life going through treatment, his widow told the crowd gathered in a hangar Friday afternoon at the guard base.
“He did it with courage. He went through surgery after surgery, (along with) many chemo treatments,” she said.
Finally, her husband received a bone marrow transplant and in September 2017 he was given the “all clear” as the couple readied to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
“Three and a half months later he was gone,” she said.
Joanne Dionne didn’t intend to speak when she showed up for Friday afternoon’s meeting. But as she heard the stories, she stood up and told the crowd that doctors initially thought her husband had lung cancer. But eventually the guard veteran was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis of his lungs.
“They don’t know what causes it,” she said. “He loved his job here. He loved his job.”
She recalled one of her husband’s doctors telling him to “get your affairs in order” and that he had three to five years to live.
“But God has been on my side, he’s going on seven years now,” she said. "His quality of life is diminishing. I treasure every day I have with him.”
Bonnie Peterman of Dover told the crowd she and retired guardsmen Wayne Perreault were married in April 2008. In June 2009, Perreault, whose family had no history of cancer, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, spleen, liver, stomach and pancreatic cancer. She believes his service at Pease caused the cancer.
Perreault died exactly two months after he was diagnosed, she said.
“It was heartbreaking. We truly had hoped for a longer time,” she said.
Pamela Bapp of Durham said her husband and guardsman Gregory Bapp started bleeding rectally at age 39. After a couple of years with failed diagnoses, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, which ultimately claimed his life.
“What scares me here today is we’re going to leave and someone is going to tell me we have to collect more data. If you want to collect more data, the first thing we have to do is test everybody,” she said during Friday’s meeting.
But she added, “nothing is going to bring back Greg.”
Col. John Pogorek, wing commander at the Pease Guard base who hosted the meeting, acknowledged at the beginning of the meeting that “this is an emotional subject.”
“None of the stories we will hear today are good,” he said.
After the meeting, Pogorek said “it was more than I thought we’d hear,” when asked about the stories he heard from those in attendance. “A lot of these stories are hard to hear but are important to tell, because we need that information."
He noted the wing has formed a working group of retirees, family members and health experts to address the health concerns.
“I think we can have a plan to move forward, I think that’s what we’re all interested in. The truth will lead us to what needs to be done and we’re all about the truth,” he said.
Brock called the stories she heard Friday “just heartbreaking.”
She believes the working group and the guard must strive to move forward to form an action plan.
“I think we need that database of what they did, what years they worked, what chemicals they were exposed to and what cancers they had,” she said.