White River Junction, Vermont (CNN)You can’t tell by looking at him, but retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Black is about to die. He’s just 35 years old.
And today he’s having what he calls a good day.
“I could be dead tomorrow. I could live another six months … It really all just depends on how my body responds to the oral chemotherapy, how much more I can squeeze out of the stone,” Black told CNN in an interview in his home on Thursday.
Black has terminal colon cancer that has spread throughout his body. He survived two combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard and received numerous honors, including a Purple Heart.
Although it’s difficult to definitively link individual cases of cancer and disorder to a specific cause, an oncologist outside the Veterans Affairs system who reviewed Black’s case determined it’s the smoldering trash from the massive burn pits on US military bases — sometimes acres in size — that will soon kill him.
“Soldiers tend to generate a lot of trash,” Black told CNN. “Metals, plastics, electronics, medical waste, your uniform — anything and everything that could be burned was thrown in the trash dump and then coated in diesel fuel and lit on fire.”
In Ramadi, Iraq, where Black served, he says the burn pit was several football fields in length. And at the remote combat outpost where he served in eastern Afghanistan, Black recalls how the burn pit was located just 150 feet from the front gate.
“If you were the poor sucker standing gate guard when that burn pit was lit and the wind was blowing toward the main gate, you’d be standing in the smoke for upwards of eight to 12 hours a day.”
Thousands of American service members have inhaled the carcinogenic haze of burn pit smoke just as he did.
A recent survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 86% of veterans from the two conflicts reported being exposed to the toxic fumes of burn pits. And 88% of those exposed said they were experiencing symptoms that could be related.
The VA acknowledges on their site that waste products disposed of in open burn pits include chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, along with things like munitions and petroleum products.
When Black medically retired in 2015 after being thrown from a Humvee in a roadside bomb attack, he thought he had survived the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“I thought I was on Easy Street. I was ready to chase my wife and son around for the rest of my life. Life was good,” Black said.
Then the pain and severe digestive issues began.
A death sentence
Black says he complained of serious symptoms to Veterans Affairs providers for years. But he says his cancer went undetected until 2017.
The diagnosis was stage four colon cancer, a death sentence.
When Black learned he would die, he had a new baby boy. He and his wife had just bought a home with a treehouse out front in a quiet Vermont town. He was beginning a career as a firefighter.
This past spring, in the late stages of his illness, Black retired from the fire department.
But when his former coworkers drive the engine by his house, they turn on the lights and sirens, one local volunteer firefighter told CNN.
Now Black and his wife are planning a funeral, visiting the local funeral home to pick out his coffin.
“It’s literally just a square pine box, and I was like that’s the coffin I want,” Black told CNN. “My wife looked at me with this horrified look like ‘don’t you dare, don’t you dare make me face your entire family with this pine box’ … But I said that’s what I want, that’s what I want to be buried in.”
The wife, per usual, won out.
As Black sought answers after his diagnosis, an oncologist outside the VA system linked his rare cancer to burn pit exposure.
The VA then granted Black 100% disability coverage for his service-related illness. It was a win
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