PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- The wing commander of the 157th Air Refueling Wing pledged to push for a health study to be conducted, in the wake of concerns raised by retirees and guardsmen's widows about what they believe is an unusually high amount of cancers at the Pease Air National Guard base here.
"It's an important issue," Col. John W. Pogorek, the wing commander, said in an interview this week. "Once you join this unit and after retirement, we still have a vested interest in our folks. These are our friends, our colleagues, many times we have generations of families who work here. My own daughter is part of the unit, I've been here 20 years now."
Pogorek said he has not noticed what he believes is an unusually high amount of cancers at the wing, but he is taking the concerns raised seriously.
"I'm very interested in having a study for Pease. If we can nail it down for our folks that were here I'd be very supportive of that," he said in an interview at the Pease guard base this week.
Guard officials will hold a meeting with representatives from a number of federal and state agencies this week to talk about the concerns that have been raised, Pogorek said. They began discussing the issue when the widows of several airmen who died of cancer told Seacoast Sunday they believe something their husbands were exposed to at the Guard base could have contributed to the cancers.
A study, Pogorek said, could help determine "are our (cancer) rates higher here than the general population in the area or on the military side, or anybody that's done these occupations."
"I think we have to find out if we have a higher cancer rate here," he said.
Some concerns have been raised in initial discussions with the health agencies about whether the wing has a big enough population for a study, Pogorek said.
"There's another 18 Air National Guard bases that do the same mission that we do," he said. " ... Maybe when you start talking about these other 18 bases we can build a population."
Pogorek also plans to meet with some of the retirees and widows of guardsmen this week as the guard plans to hold a town hall-style meeting to address the cancers in early December. He plans to talk to them about their concerns and ask for their advice on what to discuss at the meeting, he said. At that meeting, officials will give the retirees, widows and current members "the opportunity to share their information," he said.
He hopes the town hall meeting will help the guard "in finding the way forward" as it addresses the cancer concerns.
Pogorek also hopes to create a cancer registry to help track cases, disseminate information quicker and offer other resources to its members and their families.
"I know they're interested in finding out what are some of the health signs to know so we can inform our folks what to be looking out for," Pogorek said.
That early intervention might help Guardsmen survive cancer if they're diagnosed, he said.
Doris Brock recently told Seacoast Sunday she believes her husband, Kendall Brock, a 35-year member of the guard who died in June 2017 from bladder and prostate cancer, contracted cancer from working at the base. She believes her husband's exposure to 12 different chemicals on the base that were known carcinogens -- along with drinking contaminated water -- caused his cancer.
She has called for the Air Force, Air National Guard and the state of New Hampshire to investigate what she and others believe is an unusually high number of men who served at the base and have been diagnosed with cancer.
Pogorek worked with Kendall Brock in maintenance at the wing, and called his death "tragic." "If doctors knew what to look for, maybe we could have changed that," he said about Brock's death.
Doris Brock said she is scheduled to meet with Pogorek and other guard officials on Monday.
"They wanted to visit with me and have a discussion about how to prepare for the upcoming meeting in December," she said Friday. "I also want to talk to them about the health study."
Since she first began raising concerns about the cancers, Brock has heard "from a lot of people" who have served at Pease and other bases who share her concerns.
"People are Googling me on the internet and they're calling me and leaving messages or their PMing me on Facebook," she said. "That's been nice. I like to hear their stories."
She believes what's happening at Pease is likely happening at other bases around the country, and in their neighboring communities.
"There are a lot of other BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) bases," she said.
Brock said she is looking forward to meeting with Pogorek and hopes he's committed to the health study. "I've been surprised that things are moving this quickly," she said.
Frank McCutcheon is another guard retiree who shares Brock's concerns. He served active duty at the former Pease Air Force Base, and then transferred to the Guard, where he served from 1975 to 2004.
He spent much of his time at the Guard doing "heavy maintenance," which he described as the day to day maintenance of the airplanes. They worked with a variety of chemicals when they worked on the planes, he said.
"There was always a level of concern. The younger you are you don't realize it," he said. "The older you get, that's when you start to realize it. A lot of things I probably should have been more cautious with."
He heard about airmen being diagnosed with cancer while he was still serving, "but cancer was one of those things people didn't really talk about."
"Eventually it started coming out," he said.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010 and received treatment then. "I've been fortunate enough that eight years later I'm cancer free," said McCutcheon, who stressed he doesn't know what caused his cancer. "I'm still here to talk about it and I'm grateful."
But he worries about the chemicals they were exposed to and the contaminated water they drank.
The city of Portsmouth closed the polluted Haven well at the former air base in May 2014 after the Air Force found high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid in the well. The Environmental Protection Agency in May 2016 set permanent health advisories for PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, at 70 parts per trillion.
In addition to being a suspected carcinogen, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states PFAS exposure can harm childhood development, increase cholesterol levels, hurt the immune system and interfere with the human body's hormones.
"I just want to make sure, especially for the younger guys, that they're not being exposed to anything that's causing them to get sick," he said.
This article is written by Jeff McMenemy from Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.