Veteran, 35, Picks Out Coffin While Dying of Colon Cancer: 'That's What I Want to Be Buried In'
Wesley Black, a former member of the Vermont Army National Guard, is dying of colon cancer he believes was caused by his exposure to burn pits in Iraq
A 35-year-old military veteran is bracing for his death as the colon cancer he was diagnosed with in 2017 has spread throughout his body.
According to the Washington Post, Wesley Black — a former infantryman with the Vermont National Guard who served two deployments in the Middle East — developed chronic diarrhea and lost a rapid amount of weight while he was in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010.
During that time, Black says he was exposed to harmful fumes from a nearby burn pit where electronics, food wrappers, metals and soiled uniforms were set aflame using jet fuel.
Black said a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor diagnosed him with Irritable Bowel Syndrome after he found blood in his stool, he told the Post. A few years later, a Veterans Affairs doctor discovered Black had developed terminal colon cancer.
"I could be dead tomorrow. I could live another six months," Black told CNN Monday. "It really all just depends on how my body responds to the oral chemotherapy, how much more I can squeeze out of the stone."
Black — a father to a 5-year-old son — said an independent doctor looked at his records and believes he likely developed cancer from his exposure to chemicals emitted by the burn pits during his deployment.
"Soldiers tend to generate a lot of trash," Black explained to CNN. "Metals, plastics, electronics, medical waste, your uniform -— anything and everything that could be burned was thrown in the trash dump and then coated in diesel fuel and lit on fire."
Veterans Affairs approved Black for 100 percent disability coverage, but many other claims were denied, the Post said.
In a statement to PEOPLE, Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said the organization is "seeking every avenue possible to develop a process with the utmost rigor where presumptives can be determined in a more expedient and holistic manner."
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"It saddens me to see fellow Veteran Wesley Black and his family battle through cancer," he said. "Secretary [Denis] McDonough recently approved the review of three presumptions for airborne hazards exposure (asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis) and has directed a review of more than 20 other possibly related illnesses."
"VA is fully committed and leaning forward on the issue of toxic exposure," he added. "We are working alongside Congress, federal partners, and VSOs and advocates, as well as gathering science from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and all other available scientific sources to deliver on the President's promise to provide the world-class health care and access to benefits Veterans need, and quite frankly deserve."
Black told the Post the burn pit near his base stretched several football fields in length and was only 150 feet from the gate where he'd stand guard for eight to 12 hours a shift. Eighty-eight percent of veterans who responded to a survey from The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said they are experiencing symptoms related to burn pit or toxic chemical exposures.
With his health trending downward, Black recently began planning his funeral with his wife and visited a facility to pick out a coffin.
"It's literally just a square pine box, and I was like that's the coffin I want," Black recalled to CNN. "My wife looked at me with this horrified look like 'don't you dare, don't you dare make me face your entire family with this pine box' ... But I said that's what I want, that's what I want to be buried in."