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House, Senate pass bills to study the number of cancers striking military pilots

Retired Air Force Col. Eric Nelson, former commander of the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group and the 4th Operations Group, is greeted after his final F-15E Strike Eagle flight at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2007. Nelson was diagnosed with late stage aggressive prostate cancer three months after retiring in 2011. (Staff Sgt. Joshua Jasper/U.S. Air Force/TNS)

The Department of Defense would be required to identify how many of its current or former aviators have been diagnosed with cancer in bills passed by the House and Senate this week, a study long sought by military pilots who have questioned why there are so many serious illnesses in their community.

The legislation was included in both chambers’ versions of the $740 billion fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act following a series of stories by McClatchy on the alarming clusters of cancer among current or former military aviators, including four commanding officers at a premiere Navy weapons testing base in California who have died of cancer since 2015.

The two versions of the 2021 spending bill will now go to House and Senate negotiators to iron out differences before being sent to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.

Betty Seaman, the wife of one of the four commanding officers at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake who died of cancer, welcomed the important milestone.

“Since losing my husband, I have met too many other families on the same unwanted journey. We all share a universal prayer, that no other family will have to go through a similar loss. Today brings us one step closer to that realization,” Seaman said in an email to McClatchy.

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Trump has suggested he may veto the legislation over a disagreement on renaming military bases that currently honor Confederate generals. While both versions of the NDAA were passed by veto-proof majorities, lawmakers in either the House or Senate could change their position when they vote on the final version of the bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the Military Aviators Cancer Incidence Study Act after McClatchy reported that military aviators may be at higher risk of developing certain cancers, according to a statement Thursday on the Senate passage of the defense bill, which was co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“Our service members deserve a full study on any possible link between their duties and an elevated risk of cancer. I look forward to working with my colleagues to make sure this bill is included in the final version of the NDAA,” Feinstein said in a news release on the bill’s passage.

The Senate version requires the Defense Department, within 60 days of passage, to enter into an agreement with the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Veterans Affairs to create what would be the most comprehensive database of cancers in the aviation community.

The database would include every service member since 1961 who served in an aviator role. The legislation defines aviators as members of the air crew, such as pilots and navigators, and members of the ground crew who worked on the aircraft.

Pilots who have been lobbying for the legislation wanted to ensure that ground crew, such as enlisted personnel who work to launch jets on aircraft carriers, were included because they were exposed to many of the same radar emissions or fuels. The bill requires the database to be completed within a year.

The database would include any cancer diagnosis, the service member’s age at diagnosis, the type of aircraft they flew and whether they had died of cancer. It would also report race and gender data so that a scientific comparison of military aviator cancer rates could be made against the general population.

The House version, introduced by Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., passed earlier this week. The House provision would require the Defense Department to contract with the National Academy of Sciences within six months of the bill’s passage to determine the “incidence of cancer diagnosis mortality among members, and former members, of the Armed Forces who serve as pilots” based on gender, age, flying hours and type of aircraft.

The House version does not include ground crew, but does also require the Defense Department to reconsider at what age pilots should be screened for cancer based on their flying hours and type of aircraft.

Pilots had previously told McClatchy that their cancers, particularly prostate cancer, were surfacing at a much younger age and earlier screenings could be life-saving.

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© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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