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The women and men of the U.S. military routinely put themselves in harm’s way, and a recent Pentagon study found U.S. military airmen and ground crews face another risk: higher cancer rates. Tara Copp, the Pentagon and National Security reporter for the Associated Press, joins Ali Rogin to discuss the study, one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind.
The women and men of the U.S. military already have some of the most dangerous jobs in the world putting themselves in harm's way. A new Pentagon study reveals that the military has a higher risk of another danger, cancer. Ali Rogin has more.
The unprecedented study was commissioned by Congress in 2021. It followed nearly 1 million service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017. It found that military pilots and the ground crews who helped them were at greater risk of developing cancer of any kind compared to the general U.S. population. Air crews suffered an 87% higher rate of melanoma. Men were 16% likelier to get prostate cancer, and women were 16% more likely to get breast cancer. Ground crews had a 19% higher rate of cancers of the brain and nervous system, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher likelihood of kidney or renal cancers.
Joining me here to discuss is Tara Copp, Pentagon and National Security Reporter for the Associated Press. Tara, thank you so much for being here. You've been speaking over the years to families and to service members who have long been calling for this study. What are they telling you now that it's out?
Tara Copp, The Associated Press:
They were blown away. There's a sense of relief. There's a sense of frustration as to why this took so long. There are pilots who've been going to their doctors four years saying, I flew. There's got to be something there, there. Or they weren't detected in time to save their lives. When this study finally came out, it's like this first tool now that these pilots and these ground crews can take, and say, let's check.
And you have gotten to know a lot of them very well, including one in particular. His name is Boot Hill, the late Boot Hill, and he really spearheaded this study. Tell me about him?
So Commander Thomas "Boot" Hill means a lot to me. He was kind of the heart of this fighter pilots can be very closed. They tend to be very private. I haven't met many that just love talking to the press. So, it took us like six months probably to warm up to each other on the phone and in emails to where I really got to hear his story.
Once he was diagnosed, once he started to see his friends dying, he literally created an Excel spreadsheet, name by name of Tomcat pilots. The same F-14 that was so popular in Top Gun and just looking at all the names and all the commanding officers who had been diagnosed and then started to reach out to other airframes. And by the time he passed, he had created a list of everybody from 1985 to 2001 who had been diagnosed with cancer.
And this study didn't actually look at the causes of these increased risk of cancer. But certainly the people who have been affected by it have their own theories, well founded theories. What have you learned about that?
So, cause is always the hardest thing. You know, you have a lifetime of exposures. Maybe you have a genetic proclivity to cancer, or maybe you smoked, or maybe you drank, or maybe you were exposed to something in the environment that lead to cancer. But with pilots in particular, there seems to be something that they are getting exposed to. You see a lot of melanoma and a lot of the studies already done say, OK, well, they are flying and they're getting exposed to more radiation that way. But what about the brain cancers? What about the thyroid cancer? And so there are other things in the cockpit, whether it's radiation from the radars or the power sources to those radars, or whether it's possibly the jet fuel or fumes or when they have to clean parts, they have to use very toxic solvents. And so there just needs to be more work done to see, you know, what may behind this.
And in fact, there is going to be more work done the next step, Congress has to conduct a larger study looking at the causes. Why did this have to be done in two phases like this?
That was kind of the same question I was asking, you know, when I saw the way it was constructed, I think it was to get buy in. Every single time with a piece of legislation, you'll often see a study required first. That's usually because it's a lot easier for members to buy in on a study than it is to immediately buy in on a, we need to fix this because these guys are suffering. They have their study now. They know the rates are higher. And this next study is going to be exhaustive. You know, do you do just the cockpit? Do you do an entire aircraft carrier that has its own massive radars, that has jet fuel, that moves through the air and water systems? So that's really going to be a challenge for Congress. How expensive do you want this to be? How long do you want it to take?
And for these military families, they're running out of time. Finding out the why will be important to protect the next generation of pilots. But what they need right now is help for the current generation.
One thing I found interesting is that the study found that even though the rates of cancer were higher, the survival rates were also higher. Why is that?
They're generally in better shape. And they also have to go to required medical checkups. So they were getting screened regularly and more and earlier. One of the things that the Pentagon actually has to do now is has to go pull from VA data and from state cancer registries. Because there are a lot of people that once they leave the military, they don't keep going to the VA for health care or because they didn't retire as an officer 20 years in service. They're not getting the military's health care system. So they weren't captured in this. And the Pentagon even said in its study, once we have this bigger, you know, universe of people, these numbers may be even worse.
Wow. Stunning to think about. Tara Copp with the Associated Press, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for having me.
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