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Military pilots, crew have alarmingly high cancer rates

 Joseph Heeter and military buddies. (TND)
Joseph Heeter and military buddies. (TND)
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A new Pentagon study shows cancer risk is higher for military pilots and crew members than it is for the general public— in some cases alarmingly higher.

National Investigative Correspondent Angie Moreschi takes a closer look at the troubling numbers and the impact on veterans.

It's already a dangerous job, but the concern is growing that higher rates of cancer are an additional occupational hazard for military pilots and their crew members.

Spotlight on America obtained a copy of the Department of Defense study.

It looked at nearly 900,000 Air Force and Navy pilots and their air and groundcrew members who served from 1992 to 2017.

The study found, compared to the U.S. general population, aircrews had the highest risk:

  • 24% more likely to be diagnosed with all types of cancer
  • 87% higher rate of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer
  • 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer
  • 16% higher rate of prostate cancer for men
  • 16% higher rate of breast cancer for women

And for the first time, this study also showed ground crews, who service aircraft, also have higher rates of cancer, including:

  • 19% higher incidence of brain cancer and cancers of the nervous system
  • 15% higher for thyroid cancer
  • 9% higher for melanoma
  • 9% higher for kidney
  • 9% higher for renal pelvis
  • 7% higher for breast cancer
  • 3% higher overall


As a young man, Joseph Heeter, now in his 80s and living in rural Ohio, served as an aircraft engine mechanic, during the Vietnam War. He spent six years as a flight line ground crew mechanic and four years on in-flight status.

I had a squamous cell carcinoma removed right here,” Mr. Heeter said, showing Spotlight on America the scar on his temple.

That’s just the latest. Sergeant Heeter has battled cancer his whole life, since getting out of the service.

  • Moreschi: "It's almost like you check every box."
  • Heeter: "I've had prostate cancer, and I had a complete prostatectomy. I've had malignant melanoma. I have lymphoma."
  • Moreschi: "Do you think that played a part here in the cancer that you've experienced later in life?"
  • Heeter: "Oh, I do."


Disabled American Veterans Deputy Legislative Director Shane Liermann says determining if there is a link to service is crucial, so veterans can get treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

If a veteran has been exposed to something that's having a long-term negative effect, action needs to be taken,” Liermann said. “They shouldn't continue to pay. “

The main question now is: What could be causing the increased cancer risk?

“The biggest problem is most veterans who were exposed don’t know they were exposed,” Liermann said.

Phase 2 of the study, now getting underway, will look to “identify specific occupational and environmental risk factors associated with the increased risk of cancers identified in Phase 1.” That could include everything from cosmic radiation to jet fuel.

During his years as a military mechanic, Mr. Heeter says he was constantly drenched in jet fuel while working on aircraft engines.

He had to fight for increased benefits from the V.A. to cover his many bouts with cancer and was ultimately approved for 80% disability due to his service.

He says finally seeing the military study this issue means a lot to him.

It's time. We're losing too many people for something that, that we shouldn't be losing them for.”


Heeter attributes his own survival with multiple bouts of cancer to early detection and hopes this study will lead to more veterans getting screened earlier for all the cancers identified.

  • Moreschi: "You’re one of the lucky ones."
  • Mr. Heeter: "I made it through a lot. I wish things would've been different. I wish I hadn't gotten exposed to all this stuff, but I did. And, and, uh (shakes his head) I’m lucky."

One note of good news from the study: It found aircrew and ground crew both had lower or similar cancer mortality rates for all types of cancer compared to the general population.

“Aircrew had a 56 percent lower mortality rate for all cancer sites when compared to the similar U.S. population, and ground crew had a 35 percent lower mortality rate,” the study reported.

Spotlight on America contacted the VA for a reaction to the higher cancer rates the DOD study found for military pilots and their crew.

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A spokesperson provided this comment: "We will review the results of the Air Force studies, including the larger study that is currently ongoing, as they become available. The health of Veterans remains our top priority at VA."

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