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Updated: Friday, 02 Nov 2012, 10:51 PM EDT
Published : Friday, 02 Nov 2012, 10:27 PM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - An I-Team 8 investigation is already prompting congressional action in Washington D.C. In a six-month long investigation, I-Team 8 uncovered information raising more questions than answers about government accountability to American troops.
I-Team 8’s investigation began with a U.S. Marine in Indianapolis. The investigation is now centered in Washington D.C. as we question top commanders, Veterans Affairs and congressional leaders about the deadly cancer predicted 20 years ago in what some called "The Black Lung Tour."
Colonel Mark Smith is a fighter.
"I kill freakin' terrorists. That ain't hard. It's what I was born to do. These people kill cancer,” Smith said.
He is a battalion commander — a U.S. Marine.
In 2004 he led 1,200 Marines into one of the fiercest battles of Iraq, the battle of Fallujah. Looking at pictures of the Marines his battalion lost, he says, "I cried like a baby every time we lost one of our outstanding Marines in combat."
Many in central Indiana came to know Mark, also an Indiana State Trooper, his wife and daughters through letters home from Iraq that were featured on WISH-TV.
But in those letters years ago, his real battle was just beginning.
"The morning I got up, I had a bizarre pain in my calf," Smith recalled.
At a commanders conference in New Orleans, he was about to take his morning run.
"Being athletic you automatically think strain, sprain, overtraining," he said.
The pain persisted. Doctors found a blood clot in his leg, so they ordered a CT scan.
It was lung cancer.
"The only thing I heard in that room that night was in my own mind, planning my funeral," Smith said.
24-Hour News 8 cameras have spent months documenting how a Marine commander, always prepared, battles cancer.
"This is just something I was completely and utterly unprepared for,” Smith said. “The Marine Corps steels you."
Smith admitted it was hard to get into the car to go for his first double dose of chemotherapy and radiation.
"It's really hard because everything from the time you are diagnosed is about finding 'the new normal,’” he said.
Chemotherapy and radiation became his "new normal."
Leaving his first day of treatment, Smith describes it as "awesome" then lifts his shirt to show the box outlined in marker on his chest to show the area doctors will hit with radiation. Day after day he undergoes both radiation and chemo — long, hard, grueling treatments.
He sits with an IV in his arm for chemotherapy, holding a book and saying, "This is just the Marine Corps way."
The Marine Battlebook is replaced by Mark's Cancer Battlebook. He fights fatigue and nausea as a Marine — through martial arts, the treadmill and swimming.
"THE BLACK LUNG TOUR"
Sitting on his couch at home, Smith explains where the cancer may have originated.
"My personal belief is Desert Storm," he said.
His team of doctors points to Desert Storm as a possible source for the cancer. When asked if there could be any connection between Smith's lung cancer and his time served in the Gulf War, Dr. Peter Garrett says, "He certainly had exposure."
In 1991 Smith deployed with the 3/24 Marines to Saudi Arabia — "Camp Coyote."
"Prior to the ground war — starting when the Iraqis torched some of the oil wells — we were in a significant path of the smoke from one of those oil fires for a very long time,” he said. “Four to six weeks."
His pictures tell the story.
"At high noon the sky had a blackish blue hue to it. We would routinely, constantly blow our nose and have nothing but black in the Kleenex. It wasn't uncommon to be standing there and another instructor go like this (wipes his nose) to let you know you had black gunk coming out of your nose,” Smith said.
Young and bulletproof, they joked it would kill them one day.
20 YEAR WARNING
I-Team 8 discovered experts sounding the alarm as early as 1991 that deaths "from lung cancer...are expected to rise dramatically..." (Source: John Horgan, The Danger from Kuwait's Air Pollution: Smoke from Oil Fires Threatens Healthy, Scientific American October 1991)
And I-Team 8 uncovered documentation showing Gulf War veterans with a "higher rate" and "substantially higher risk" of lung cancer. (Source: The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program )
"We've known for years that our veterans are being diagnosed and dying of lung cancer at higher rates than civilians," Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, USN (Ret) said. He's on record saying early "screening not only saves lives but money."
While Veterans Affairs has been urged to offer CT screenings for veterans at high risk for lung cancer so far, the VA has not implemented it — relying solely on the less efficient X-rays. Remember, it was civilian doctors who discovered stage 3b cancer in Smith with a CT Scan. So if doctors, the VA, and the military all know veterans from the Gulf War are at higher risk: Why isn't DOD notifying those at higher risk and why isn't the VA screening them
Should Smith have been on a priority list to be screened each year? His medical records show after returning from the Gulf War in 1991 he was diagnosed with asthma. The records show an abnormality on his right upper lobe — the same spot now riddled with cancer. I-Team 8 showed those medical records to his current doctor, asking if there is a correlation.
"Could be but I couldn't tell you for sure there was," Dr. Garrett said.
When told Smith believes the cancer originates to his time served in Desert Storm Garrett replied, "Could be."
RESEARCH BACKS WARNING
Even at the time, British scientists predicted a jump in lung cancer over the following 20 years. (Source: American University International Law Review "Environmental Terrorism: Lessons from the Oil Fires of Kuwait" 1991 Volume 10/Issue 1)
Dr. Garrett confirms it can take that long for the cancer to develop. Smith is right on target. So, if members of the military are coming back and there is a higher risk and higher rate of lung cancer that has been documented, are members of the military supposed to just wait for it to show up?
"Well, I think that is the role for the Department of Defense," Dr. Garrett said.
ALWAYS A MARINE
Smith wore his uniform for his final treatment — the same uniform that may have led to the cancer.
"One of his nurses said, ‘What is the occasion?’ He goes, 'Last treatment.' Then he said he just wanted to show respect,” Mark's daughter Nichole explained.
Respect for his Marines he still considers on his watch.
"I knew when he said that even though they are up in heaven, they were part of the team too,” Nichole said. “Part of him fought it (the cancer) because they didn't have the choice or the chance to fight something like that if it ever came up. I know a part of him did it for them and their families too."
Smith has spent a career fighting terrorists to protect American lives. Now his fight is for his own life.
"The prognosis is good,” he said through tears. “Chances are everything will work out. But if they don't, I worry about others."
Asked if he means his daughters he breaks down with emotion and simply says, "Yeah."
And other Marines. At risk. Dying. Unaware.
I-TEAM 8 INVESTIGATION PROMPTS CONGRESSIONAL ACTION
Through months of research and digging for answers, I-Team 8 uncovered a disturbing trend. We discovered documentation that governments of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United States suppressed information and a "gag order" led to a scarcity of data. (Source: John Horgan "Why are Data Being Witheld? Scientific American, July 1991) (Source: William Booth, Washington Post June 25, 1991. Also, Daphne Bramham Black Death in the Gulf: Environmentalists Accue Governments of Playing Down Potential Dangers from Blazing Oil Wells, Vancouver Sun July 27, 1991 B1, B4, B6)
Indiana Congressman Marlin Stutzman, Indiana's only member on the House Veterans Affairs committee, is launching his own investigation.
"After hearing about this case, I am very concerned,” Stutzman said. “This is an issue that needs to be brought to the immediate attention of the VA and DOD. I know one thing, being proactive in regard to early detection is the best prevention for cancer. We also need to make sure high-risk soldiers and Marines are getting the appropriate notification so they can be screened in a timely fashion. I will be following this story very closely."
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