Vermont soldier remembered for raising awareness about burn pits

Local News

A Vermont soldier who lost his battle with cancer Sunday is being remembered for his selflessness and commitment to helping other service members.

Staff Sgt. Wesley Black of Hartford was exposed to burn pits — large areas of land where everything from radio batteries, medical waste, even feces, are burned on military bases — while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent his final days pushing for change.

“I’m kind of like the canary in the coal mine, I’m screaming my head off trying to raise this issue of awareness,” Black told CNN. “It’s too late for me, but its not too late for the next veteran walking down the hall of the VA. We have a chance right now to get ahead of that ball.”

Black battled stage four colon cancer, a diagnosis linked to burn pits. In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to better understand whether long-term health conditions may be related to exposure.

Vermont National Guard Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight said about 700 Vermonters are among the more than 225,000 service members who have registered.

“We knew it wasn’t good for us when we were over there,” he said. “We breathe it, we eat it, we drink it, it’s in us when we come home.”

Knight knows about the exposure first-hand, having received treatment for his own symptoms. In 2019, he joined Black in testifying before Vermont lawmakers, which ultimately led to a bill calling for an educational campaign about the dangers of burn pits.

Black sued the VA Medical Center in White River Junction for failing to diagnose him with colon cancer and reached a $3 million settlement this summer. He is among more than a half-dozen Vermonters who have lost their lives to aberrant cancers linked to their days in combat.

The others include:

  • BG Mike Heston – pancreatic cancer
  • COL Wayne Caroleo – pancreatic cancer
  • MAJ Mel Wilson – brain tumor
  • SFC Santiago Navarette (PA) – brain tumor
  • MSG Jon Smith (PA) – pancreatic cancer
  • SGM Mike Cram – prostate cancer
  • SSG Jeff Sollace – prostate cancer
  • MAJ Keith Underwood – lung cancer

“And I know there’s more,” Knight said. “Probably literally thousands who have separated from the service and that’s one of the frustrations, I can’t reach them. A lot of times they don’t report it, they suck it up.”

Wesley Black was also active in the Hartford Fire Department. He’s survived by his wife, Laura, and 5-year-old son, Ronan.

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