CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. - A 39-year old Cathedral City woman who served in Iraq is now in the fight for her life and she believes the military may be to blame.
Jennifer Kepner went to Iraq in 2006 and served as an Air Force medic.
Her job was to help others who had been wounded.
"My job specifically was to keep the patients stable until they could get a higher echelon of care in Germany," Kepner said.
Mortar attacks were her biggest concern during her tour of duty, "It just becomes part of your everyday life."
"It's scary, but you can't live your life in fear every day," Kepner says.
She would return home with her health and get married to Ben Kepner.
They have two children, 9-year old Aidia and 2-year old Wyatt.
She went to work as an X-ray technician at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.
Her life was going well and then it seemed to change in an instant.
Kepner says, "Last year, I just started feeling sick and nauseous and back pain, but who doesn't have back pain?"
She went to the doctor when she became jaundiced.
"I went early in the morning and by 10 a.m. they told me there was a mass on my pancreas," Kepner says.
Surgery followed along with chemotherapy which turned out to be just the beginning of the fight.
At the end of chemotherapy, she found out a scan revealed her cancer had spread to her liver.
Why did she have this life-threatening disease with no family history, at her young age, without any genetic disposition?
She says her first oncologist believed the cause was an open air burn pit that Kepner was exposed to during her tour of duty at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
A department of veterans affairs training letter reveals that at the height of operations, hundreds of tons of waste was burned each day including plastics, Styfrofoam, petroleum products, human waste and other items.
Local 36th District Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D., a Democrat, agrees with the conclusion, "Most certainly there could be a connection when you see from recent samples they found dioxin and other carcinogons in the soil around these areas."
I took my questions about burn pits and cancer to the Department of Defense.
In a written statement, a spokesman revealed, "Burn pits may pose short and long term risks."
It went on to read, "DOD acknowledges some individuals have experienced persistent symptoms, or in some cases, developed chronic respiratory disease following deployment, possibly as a result of increased susceptibility, elevated exposures, combined exposures, pre-existing health conditions, or other factors."
FULL STATEMENT FROM DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
The health and well-being of our Service members is the top priority of the DoD. We continue to be concerned about the possibility that pollutants from industry; exhaust from vehicles, machinery, and generators; open air burn pit emissions and fumes from fires; high levels of indigenous ambient particulate matter; and munitions and weapons, airborne sand, dust, urban pollutants, contaminants and burn pit smoke in the Southwest Asia region, including Iraq and Afghanistan, may pose short- and long-term health risks.
DoD and VA will provide appropriate clinical assessments and treatment for Service members and veterans who have respiratory and other health concerns related to deployment.
DoD acknowledges some individuals have experienced persistent symptoms, or in some cases, developed chronic respiratory disease following deployment, possibly as a result of increased susceptibility, elevated exposures, combined exposures, pre-existing health conditions, or other factors. Investigation into the relationship of deployment to possible long-term respiratory effects continues to be at the forefront of our concerns.
DoD and VA continue to monitor short- and long-term health effects of deployment, with emphasis on airborne hazards, including a continuous review and reassessment of previously completed epidemiologic studies associated with burn pit smoke and other types of possible deployment-related exposures. This considers many diagnoses, such as pulmonary disease, and determines if the clinical findings have changed as more time has passed since Service member deployments to Southwest Asia began.
Commander, U.S. Navy
Defense Press Operations
Office of the Secretary of Defense
Veteran Aime Muller also served at Joint Base Balad.
She passed away earlier this year at the age of 36 after a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Her husband believes the government is delaying and denying.
Brian Muller says, "Of course when they did finally figure out what was wrong, it was already stage 3 and a really rough road ahead for her."
Two very similar stories and now Kepner is trying to raise awareness.
"This is the Agent Orange of our vets, of my generation of vets, this is the Agent Orange and it took how many years for the Vietnam vets to get recognition for Agent Orange."
She's also fighting to get benefits after not working for a year, including disability benefits that may help her husband raise their children if she doesn't survive her battle against cancer.
"What I am seeking right now is the disability benefits, so I want my husband and children to be compensated if something happens to me that their quality of life is maintained because of something my government did because I was fighting for my country.
As she fights cancer and now the government, her patriotism hasn't faltered.
The flag still flies outsider her home and it's prominently displayed inside their home.
I asked what her doctors tell her about her chances.
Kepner tries to remain optimistic, "They're not God but anyone who has metastatic to the liver they throw this six to 12 months at you but I don't believe that."
She says, "I fight every single day but I don't want to be part of the statistic."
She's now taking part in a clinical immunotherapy trial in hopes of extending her life.
She's asking other veterans who were exposed to burn pits to register with Veterans Affairs to make sure the government knows about everyone dealing with any illnesses that may be connected.
Burn pits are still in use in Iraq and Syria but the Department of Defense has added control measures to mitigate the risk to service members including the placement of burn pits so the wind carries the smoke away from the base.