Hartford veteran, burn pit activist settles diagnosis lawsuit against White River Junction VA

  • Photographed on Feb. 26, 2019, Wesley Black, 33, has colon cancer after serving with the Army overseas near garbage burn pits. (VtDigger - Mark Johnson)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2021 10:05:21 PM
Modified: 8/3/2021 10:05:32 PM

BURLINGTON — A 35-year-old veteran who sued the White River Junction VA Medical Center for failing to diagnose him with colon cancer caused by exposure to military burn pits has settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money, according to court documents.

A notice of the settlement agreement that was filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington on Tuesday says the settlement is not final and must be approved by a state judge and the U.S. Department of Justice before the lawsuit is officially closed.

Dan Perrone, an attorney representing the veteran, Wesley Black, of Hartford, declined to disclose the amount the suit was settled for because it still needs final approval, but he did say in an interview Tuesday that Black’s family is pleased with the settlement, calling it a “fair outcome.”

The news comes a year after Black his wife, Laura, and their 4-year-old son jointly filed a $17.5 million lawsuit against the U.S. government, which oversees the VA. In the complaint Black claimed VA doctors neglected to properly diagnose him with colon cancer during his multiple visits to the hospital between 2013 and 2017. During that time, doctors incorrectly told Black that his frequent intestinal issues were due to irritable bowel syndrome, the lawsuit said. It wasn’t until Black was taken to the VA’s emergency room with rectal bleeding that doctors ordered a colonoscopy and found he had stage 4 cancer.

The delay of an accurate diagnosis allowed the cancer to develop to a terminal state, Black claimed in the lawsuit.

Following the diagnosis, a physician with the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston assessed Black and determined the 2013 intestinal issues were actually early signs of cancer that developed as a result of Black’s exposure to burn pits while on tours with the National Guard, according to court documents.

Black said in the complaint that he was frequently exposed to burn pits while serving two tours with the National Guard before returning to the states for good in 2010.

Perrone said he hopes this lawsuit and similar cases will push the U.S. Department of Defense to be more open and communicative about the health effects veterans and active military can suffer from exposure to burn pits. One of the main reasons Black was initially misdiagnosed was that doctors who treated him didn’t know burn pits were linked to cancer — or even that burn pits existed, he said.

“It was really just a matter of connecting the dots, and that wasn’t done in this case,” he said. “The physician had never even heard of a burn pit until this lawsuit.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has claimed the negative effects of burn pit exposure are “temporary” and resolve after the exposure is over.

But Perrone said he believes Department of Defense officials try downplay the health risks of burn pits in order to protect the government from an onslaught of disability claims by current or former members of the military.

“I think we need to get to a point where the government’s attempt to protect itself from disability claims does not outweigh actually providing care for veterans,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Vermont declined to comment on the case in a message Tuesday.

Black, a former firefighter, retired in April. Perrone said he can’t provide an update on Black’s health status because doctors don’t have a “concrete answer” on his life expectancy.

But, he added, “if there’s anyone who’s a fighter, Wesley is a fighter.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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