President Barack Obama just signed into law a bill that may help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who were exposed to a potential health risk - pits of burning waste.
A Leavenworth, KS, woman blames exposure to that toxic smoke for her husband's death and is speaking out about the danger he and other veterans faced.
With more than three decades of service to the U.S. Army, Command Sgt. Maj. James Hubbard certainly earned his place in Leavenworth National Cemetery. But proving the reasons he is now buried there were caused by his service turned out to be much more difficult.
"This is his favorite photo that he had," his wife Katie Hubbard said.
James Hubbard loved to serve - it could be seen in the care he took with his uniform, even using a ruler to place his ribbons.
"Whatever the military code said it was it was, he would be. If it's a quarter of an inch, it's a quarter of an inch," Katie Hubbard said.
But his 36 years of service took their toll.
"You can see how it wore on him being over there as long as he was," his wife said as she looked at a photo album showing him from the start of his deployment to the end.
She said he was full of life at the beginning and she noticed how haggard he became towards the end.
It wasn't a sniper or a roadside bomb for James Hubbard - death came from a burn pit that military bases use to dispose of waste in place of a garbage truck.
"Sometimes there's body parts put in there, there's human waste, there's sometimes chemicals," Katie Hubbard said.
James Hubbard breathed the air from the pits in Iraq, but it took years for doctors to tie the exposure to his growing fatigue and strange blood work. Things took a dramatic turn in 2008.
"The doctor came in the room and he said, ‘well, you have cancer,'" his wife said.
He had a form of leukemia that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said was affecting more and more service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, caused by exposure to burn pits and depleted uranium.
James Hubbard lost his fight with cancer six months ago, but it was just the start for his wife.
"He squeezed my hand really tight," she said. "For the longest time nobody wanted to do anything. It's burn pits, it's cancer - nobody wants to talk about it."
Then, after years of lobbying, Obama last week approved a new burn pit registry to track those exposed and get them treatment faster.
"This legislation is huge for so many people, it could potentially help and prevent deaths of millions of people," Katie Hubbard said.
Though it was too late for her husband, Katie Hubbard can still keep his uniform in perfect shape, keep flowers at his grave and help others to understand that, no matter how a soldier goes, they still mean something to someone.
Katie Hubbard also hasn't received most surviving spouse benefits since her husband was a reservist, not on active duty, when he died. She said it's not about money, but about honoring his service.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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