By Brianna Keilar and Catherine Valentine, CNN
"I'm not bullshitting you when I say the conversation went like this: 'Hi Wesley, I just wanted to call and see how you're doing. Are you alone this weekend?" retired Staff Sergeant Wesley Black said, describing the call he received three years ago from his doctor.
"No, my wife is here," he answered.
"Great, OK good, because we wanted to let you know you have stage four colon cancer, and we'll be in touch with you Monday, OK? Have a good weekend."
Black was 31 years old and had recently begun a new career as a firefighter. His wife had just given birth to their baby boy. Days before, they had signed the mortgage on their first home.
The colon cancer had spread to his liver and lungs and Black says doctors gave him three to five years to live. That was three years and one month ago.
Later, he learned burn pits used by the military to destroy trash in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Black had served in the Vermont National Guard, were to blame.
What is a burn pit?
Ask any veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars what went into the burn pits, and they'll tell you: everything. Food, human waste, tourniquets, bloody gloves, cans of paint, plastic water bottles, unexploded ordnance, batteries, tires, big screen televisions, mini-fridges, Kindle E-readers and entire humvees, too damaged by IEDs to salvage.
They would add diesel and jet fuel, both known carcinogens, and light the trash piles on fire. At times, they burned around the clock, churning out acrid, black smoke.
At one base in Afghanistan, soldiers saw the entire fuselage of a Soviet-built Afghan airplane smoldering as they jogged along a burn pit on their daily run.
Veterans repeatedly describe choking air wafting through their sometimes makeshift barracks as the wind shifted.