Vermont veteran exposed to burn pits dies of cancer


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-11-2021 10:28 AM

HARTFORD — Wesley Black, the 36-year-old Hartford firefighter who was battling colon cancer after being exposed to open burn pits while serving with the Vermont National Guard in Afghanistan and Iraq, died on Sunday.

“The Hartford Fire Department regrets to announce the passing of Firefighter Wesley Black. Wesley passed away Sunday afternoon at his home surrounded by family and friends after a long and courageous battle with cancer,” the fire department said on Facebook, prompting dozens of replies from friends and supporters of the firefighter.

Black is survived by his wife, Laura, and their 5-year-old son.

Black this summer reached a $3 million settlement after he sued the White River Junction VA Medical Center in federal court for failing to diagnose him with colon cancer.

“Wes was a devoted husband, loving father and someone I’m honored to have called a friend. The world was truly a better place with him in it … After being diagnosed with terminal cancer stemming from his military service, he used the tragic hand he was dealt as a platform from which to raise awareness about the harmful effects of burn pit exposure,” Dan Perrone, one of Black’s attorneys, said via email on Monday. “His heroics and advocacy have and undoubtedly will continue to save lives.”

In his lawsuit against the U.S. government, Black detailed how VA doctors neglected to diagnose him with colon cancer after he lost 75 pounds and suffered from severe intestinal issues. While serving overseas, he had breathed in the smoke from open air garbage dumps where military bases burn everything from human waste to plastic and out-of-use uniforms. Doctors incorrectly told him that he had irritable bowel syndrome, the lawsuit said. When Black eventually went to the emergency room with rectal bleeding, a colonoscopy revealed he had stage 4 cancer.

Black had asserted in his lawsuit that the delay of an accurate diagnosis allowed the cancer to develop to a terminal stage before he could get treatment.

Lawyers raced to get court approval this fall for the settlement before Black died, and the case formally closed on Oct. 19. The settlement includes $500,000, before legal fees, for a trust for Black’s son. Overall, attorneys will get 25% of the settlement.

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“I know I’m not the only one this has happened to, but I feel kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Black told the Valley News in May 2020, adding: “As long as I draw breath, I’m still in the fight.”

In its 2020 survey, the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 86% of its members were exposed to “burn pits and/or airborne toxic materials.”

Black was a decorated veteran who was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal, a Bronze Star with Valor, the Purple Heart and the Army Commendment with Valor. After his deployment, he joined the Hartford Fire Department.

“He will be greatly missed, always a welcomed presence and had a heartfelt duty for service not only to his country but to his community and family,” Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney said in an email Monday. “Throughout his struggle to battle cancer, his desire to push through any obstacle will forever stay with me. He embodied the ethos of ‘service before self’ of an infantryman and a firefighter.”

This year the fire department created the Wesley Black Meritorious Service Award to honor a firefighter who embodies Black’s “bravery, selflessness, fortitude, hard work and courage,” Cooney wrote.

Black testified before the Vermont Senate two years ago to advocate for a bill to raise awareness about the health impacts of burn pits among health care providers, veterans and members of the Vermont National Guard. Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law in June 2019. The bill also tasks state agencies to encourage veterans to enroll with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. When veterans register, they are eligible for a physical that may identify current health impacts of their exposure. Data collected is also part of a research project to better understand the health impacts of open burn pits, according to the VA.

“They’re trying to collect statistical and health information on as many veterans as they can who served near environmental hazards, in this case open burn pits,” said Eugene Hitchcock with the Vermont Veterans Outreach Program.

In years past, the VA website asserted that no research linked open burn pits with “long-term health problems.” The VA now presumes that veterans who suffer from asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis — all respiratory ailments — and were exposed to airborne hazards while serving in areas where burn pits were standard are eligible for expanded benefits.

While open-air pits were once “common practice,” the Department of Defense has now “closed out most burn pits and is planning to close the remainder,” according to the VA website.

Arrangements for Black’s funeral are pending.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727- 3242.