Four commanding officers at a premiere Navy weapons testing base in California have died of cancer, one of several alarming clusters in the military’s aviation community found by a McClatchy investigation.
The commanding officers served at California’s Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. They were some of the Navy’s top aviators and test pilots. Each had thousands of flight hours in advanced jets and two attended TOPGUN, the Navy’s elite Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor course. One of them, Capt. Alexander Hnarakis, was part of the inspiration for the Tom Cruise blockbuster movie.
Details about this unusual string of cancer deaths at the top tier of Navy veteran aviators were shared with McClatchy in interviews with pilots who knew them and with family members.
In recent months, members of that usually private group of both Navy and Air Force pilots have come forward to raise attention to the issue and try to answer the question: What’s causing the cancers?
At China Lake, three of the four commanding officers served back-to-back. Capt. John D. Langford, commanding officer from 1998 to 2000, died of brain cancer at age 66 in September 2015. Capt. James Seaman, commanding officer 2000 to 2002, died of lung cancer in April 2018 at age 61.
Capt. Alexander Hnarakis, commanding officer 2002 to 2004, died of thyroid cancer in May 2018 at age 62. Capt. Jeffrey Dodson, commanding officer 2009 to 2012, died of brain cancer in July 2016 at age 55.
“Everybody’s looking for that unifying thread,” said retired Capt. Dave Kennedy, a Navy test pilot who served with Seaman and Hnarakis. “When you get older, you get cancer sometimes. But at the same time, the rates are pretty scary. When you have such a shocking set of coincidences, there’s got to be something behind them. And that’s the challenge, to find out what that is.”
China Lake was not the only cancer cluster McClatchy found. Six Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilots and weapons systems officers at a North Carolina base, aged 33 to 43, were diagnosed with forms of urogenital cancers — which affect the kidneys, bladder, prostate or testicles — between 2002 and 2005, according to a 2008 Air Force study titled “Cancer in Fighters.” The men with the 334th Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro had completed at least 2,100 hours of flying apiece.
“An alarming number of cancer cases were uncovered,” said the report, which was exclusively obtained by McClatchy. “Was this a coincidence or are there factors causing or promoting cancer? This topic, as you can imagine, has a large impact on the Strike Eagle and other fighter communities.”
A separate 2010 Air Force study focused on a cluster of seven brain cancers found among Air Force Special Operations Command C-130 crew members between 2006 and 2009. The cancers affected three C-130 pilots, two flight engineers, one loadmaster and one navigator assigned to different bases around the globe.
The disease only strikes 6.5 out of 100,000 people in the United States annually.
“The small size of this [Air Force special operations] population and the rarity of brain cancer make any grouping of cases appear to be unusual,” the study said, but concluded that the cancers “appear to be related to chance and not to any particular exposure risk.”
The Seymour Johnson F-15E study also looked closely at the radars used on the Air Force jets, a factor that naval aviators also want their service to consider.
“All of those aircraft … carry extremely powerful radar systems,” said retired F-14 radar intercept officer Navy Cmdr. Mike Crosby.
In the F-14 and F-15, radars are located in the nose of the aircraft, however radiation would surface from the sides and back of the devices, with no extra shielding for the pilots, which Crosby said might be tied to the cancers.
He founded Veterans Prostate Cancer Awareness, Inc., after seeing a number of cancers among fellow Navy pilots.
“Weight is a considerable issue in an airplane. You want it to be as light and as powerful as possible,” Crosby said. “When we all go to get X-rays, you see everybody wearing lead vests, and lead rooms, and lead panels,” Crosby said. “Well, that doesn’t exist in an airplane.”
In its investigation of cancers among veterans, McClatchy obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests every cancer billing to the VA health care system from fiscal year 2000 to fiscal year 2018. The data can be broken down by service, but not by military job such as fighter pilot or submariner.
When calculating the percent increase of Navy cancers, McClatchy accounted for the fact that during the same time frame, the number of Navy veterans using VA health care nearly doubled, from 658,350 in fiscal year 2000 to 1,245,750 in fiscal year 2018.
McClatchy found that for Navy veterans receiving care at VA health care centers, the rate of treatments for urinary cancer rose by 56 percent from fiscal year 2000 to fiscal year 2018.
Similarly, the rate for prostate cancer treatments increased by 10 percent and treatments for blood cancers — lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia — rose by 16 percent in the same period. Other cancers fell. The rate of brain cancer treatments decreased by 35 percent and that of respiratory cancers declined by 16 percent.
Family members of the four commanding officers who died from cancer at China Lake said they did not think the illness was related to activities at the base. The California desert base has been the site of new weapons testing for decades, including conducting 121 test drops of the shell and incendiary configurations for atomic bombs Fat Man and Little Boy from 1943 to 1945.
Rather, the families think it was the similar career paths taken which led to their selection to take command at China Lake.
“Given everything he knew, he would not have changed a thing. He felt so blessed with the opportunities he had,” said Tracy Bowman, sister of Capt. Jeffrey Dodson.
But he would have wanted the Navy to investigate to ensure the safety of future pilots, Bowman said.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why We Did This Story
Military correspondent Tara Copp was in Kuwait, preparing to embed with U.S. forces crossing into Iraq as the 2003 invasion began.
In one early March evening exchange at Kuwait’s Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, where thousands of U.S. personnel were supporting the air campaign, Copp was in a pickup truck with a member of the National Guard driving around the base. The smell outside, a mixture of jet fuel and burnt air, had already become familiar.
The driver turned to Copp and talked about his concern that as a member of the National Guard, if he got sick, his health care may not be covered.
In the years since, as tens of thousands of service members returned home, questions have been raised about the health effects of their exposure to burn pits, toxic air, cancer-linked firefighting foam or emissions from advanced jets.
In the process of reporting this story, the struggle of veterans from previous conflicts to get their chronic illnesses recognized was also raised.
That’s why we went looking for the data, and reported what we found.
Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
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Capt. Dodson had not questioned whether his cancer was service connected until his Navy oncologist told him that the service “has a trove of information related to elevated cancer rates in certain Navy professions,” including pilots, said his widow, Tracy Dodson. “The oncologist doubted that the Navy would want to publicize this information. Perhaps times have changed, which would be good.”
Until now, one of the challenges has also been that current Navy or Air Force studies on cancer rates have focused on active duty personnel and haven’t included the medical records of their veteran pilots, where the cancers are surfacing.
Because of their full military careers, the China Lake commanders were not likely to be counted in the VA’s data obtained by McClatchy. Military personnel who serve 20 years or more are eligible for a component of the military’s active duty health care program, TRICARE, and that data is managed by a different agency. In addition, many pursue private sector jobs after separating from military service and get their health care outside of the government.
That has made it difficult to find statistics to back up what the aviation families are experiencing.
“I don’t know how to get the Department of Defense to take it seriously, because, as we’ve found, it’s hard to find any data,” said Betty Seaman, widow of Capt. James Seaman. “Jim was retired and he went through the TRICARE system. Veterans that have gotten out, a lot of them may use their private insurance. So I don’t know if there’s a way to get a grip on it without actually interviewing people.”
AIR FORCE REVIEW
So far, it’s taken a grassroots effort to get the military to look more closely at its former pilots and the cancers they are facing.
Most existing studies by the Air Force focus on active duty pilots, a limitation sometimes driven by access to veterans’ medical records. But that approach leaves out former aviators now battling the disease, a point several veteran pilots raised after a May 2019 Air Force study that found only two cases of prostate cancer among the active duty ranks.
After the study was published, McClatchy was contacted by a number of veteran pilots who said the review’s limited scope had missed their cancers.
One of those was retired Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot Maj. James Barlow. In January 2018, Barlow was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer. He was 44. He has no family history of cancer, did not smoke and like many of the other pilots diagnosed, was physically fit.
Barlow was not going to go public with his diagnosis. He has not told many of his colleagues, but said now there “might be a benefit” to speaking out. “If I can help get the word out, it might save some guys going through it,” Barlow said.
For months, a small group of former Air Force aviators from the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which represents about 3,700 veterans who flew all types of aircraft, has been working behind the scenes with Air Force leadership to convince the service to look deeper.
One of those association members is Air Force veteran F-15C pilot Col. John Reed, who was personally spurred to action by the number of cancers among the pilots he led in Operation Desert Storm.
Reed was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 45. His No. 2 wingman, Lt. Col. Greg Kelly, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 58 and his No. 4 wingman, Lt. Col. Steve Wallender, died of esophageal cancer at age 49.
In October, Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg agreed to conduct a more exhaustive review.
It is expected to take a year or more to complete and will cover aviators dating back to 1970. The review will rely on Air Force personnel records, VA and TRICARE medical records, and veteran pilot association groups to work together to identify all who flew, and then cross reference that with cancer databases.
“The expanded study will investigate if military pilots get cancer at higher rates and at earlier ages than the United States general population and if there is a connection between cancer rates and military service,” Hogg said in a statement to McClatchy.
“Additionally, as we continue to address physiological stressors of flight and improve the human performance of our airmen, this study will provide sound baseline data for the next generation of pilots.”
ONE PILOT’S QUEST
The Navy said it has so far not seen sufficient evidence to warrant a study, but would re-evaluate if the Air Force’s expanded study found an increase in cancers.
“Public health studies for the Navy are triggered when there are a significant number of health reports that cause concern in regards to occupational/environmental exposures,” the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery said in a statement to McClatchy. “Currently, we are not aware of an increase in cancers in our aviation community.”
However, “if the [Air Force] expanded study identifies an increase in cancers in the military aviation community, we would likely re-evaluate the need for a Navy study, but we will need to see what their expanded study finds,” said Cmdr. Denver Applehans, a spokesman for Navy Medicine.
One retired Navy fighter pilot has decided to gather information on his own.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Thomas Hill, an F-4 and F-14 pilot and squadron commanding officer, was 52 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In December 2011, at age 60, he learned he also had esophageal cancer.
“When I got sick, seven-and-a-half years ago, I started thinking about all of the friends of mine that had had cancer and died … the names just kept popping up. Still, it was just one of those things I was curious about, but didn’t do anything. What got me started was when Jim Seaman got sick. He was a pretty close friend of mine, and his cancer came out of nowhere.”
Hill started counting.
By using the change of command announcements in Naval Aviation News as his resource, Hill identified every squadron commanding officer who led Navy attack, surveillance or fighter aircraft from 1985 to 2001. That research generated a total of 876 squadron commanders for the A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair II, E-2 Hawkeye, EA-6B Prowler, F-14 Tomcat, F-4 Phantom II and F/A-18 Hornet naval aircraft.
Hill is still battling esophageal cancer and has not been able to research all 876 names. But by going through his own network of pilots or citing obituaries, he completed the F-4 Phantom II and F-14 Tomcat list, which represents 214 commanders, including Hill.
Of those 214, he found 17 commanders who either have been diagnosed with or died from cancer, a rate he says is 8.9 times the national cancer rate for U.S. males aged 50 to 64. Overall, within the larger list of 876 names, he’s found 28 total, including the F-4/F-14 officers he’d previously identified — which he says is still three times higher than U.S. males age 50 to 64.
While Hill acknowledges this is a small sample set, he said it was the best way he could think of to provide initial data to the Navy in the absence of other information.
Hill provided his findings to the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center. After an initial response that they would find the right office for his data, he has not heard back.
It’s not just the fighter pilot community.
Lt. Seth Edmondson served nine years as a navigator on the Navy’s former surveillance and electronic countermeasures plane, the ES-3A Shadow, flying missions from the aircraft carriers USS Kitty Hawk and USS Nimitz.
In 2004, just three years after leaving the military, Edmondson was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, an aggressive soft tissue cancer located in his abdomen, at age 31.
After a successful surgery which cleared the cancer, he moved with his wife, Jenny, and three young sons to State College, Pa., grateful for a second chance.
“The cancer came back,” Jenny Edmondson said. This time it was in his pelvis and spine.
Doctors found a second cancer too, an extremely rare form called a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor.
Seth Edmondson fought the cancer for 11 months. During that time, another Shadow crew member reached out and said he had been treated for a non-malignant brain tumor, Jenny Edmondson said.
Seth Edmondson died in February 2007. He was 36.
Jenny Edmondson and other military families stricken with cancer want the Defense Department to take a closer look.
“The folks who were out flying these planes are some of the best and brightest,” Jenny Edmondson said. “I would just love to see research into it. What are they being exposed to? We owe it to them to protect them.”
Barring an official Navy study, families of naval aviators who got cancer hope that by speaking out now, the next generation of pilots will have more awareness and take greater precaution to get screened.
“Keep searching on it, keep abreast of what’s being done,” Betty Seaman said. “That’s the message we all want to get out there. And even if nothing formally gets done, I’m hoping that individually, somebody will go, ‘Oh! I need to get checked.’ Or their spouse will go, ‘You need to get checked.’”
Kennedy met both Seaman and Hnarakis in test pilot school at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland in the 1980s. The men were on a year-long assignment where the Navy taught younger aviators how to test the performance of new jets.
Kennedy and Seaman were attack aircraft pilots, flying the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II. Hnarakis was a fighter pilot, flying the F-14 Tomcat.
“Alex was the quiet tough guy in the room,” Kennedy said. “Jim was the not-quiet tough guy in the room.”
When they met, Hnarakis had just come from a seven-month deployment in the Indian Ocean aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, following successful completion of the TOPGUN course at the former Naval Air Station Miramar in California.
At the beginning of TOPGUN, Hnarakis and his radio operator, now-retired Cmdr. Dave Cully, were selected from the class of 16 competitive fighter pilots and told to cooperate with a California magazine writer who wanted to cover the class.
“I figured I would have my hands full with the class and wasn’t looking for more distractions,” Hnarakis wrote in a reflection he published years later.
But they did, and the 1983 resulting story “Top Guns: At Mach 2 and 40,000 Feet Over California, It’s Always High Noon,” caught the eye of movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
Cully and Hnarakis ended up flying with different crews after TOPGUN, but saw each other again over the years, and last at a Navy reunion after Hnarakis got cancer.
“He knew that he had terminal cancer, but he didn’t really tell anybody,” Cully said. “Obviously his family knew, but he didn’t really say anything to all of us. I think he wanted to reminisce and capture everything.”
Kennedy and Hnarakis’ paths crossed again when they served together at Naval Air Station Point Mugu years after the Tom Cruise movie was released. “He was always laughing about it,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, like the others, spoke out because they believe the China Lake commanders who died of cancer would want to make sure the next generation of pilots are not as hard hit by the disease.
“In the Navy, the second you step into your position, you are grooming your relief to take over for you. And you want somebody to be able to take over for you,” Kennedy said. “If you went around and you saw the number of folks that have succeeded and gone on and done great things in their careers, a lot of them would be Jim Seaman and Alex Hnarakis trained.”