Sam Stanton / Sacramento Bee (sacbee.com) – 2008-09-20 21:58:21
(September 6, 2008) — They’ll hold a fundraiser in Auburn next Friday to help pay Matt Bumpus’ medical bills.
The Roseville man and his family worked on the event for months in hopes of raising money to treat his leukemia. But Bumpus won’t be there. The 31-year-old father of two died a month ago after a series of battles with his disease.
He believed – and his family still does – that he became ill because he was exposed to depleted uranium at a chemical weapons site while serving with the Army in Iraq. “All of them were very concerned about what they were exposed to, very concerned,” said his stepmother, Laura Bumpus.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs rejected one claim Bumpus filed seeking compensation for his illness. But on Friday, a VA official told The Bee the agency will revisit the case and see whether Bumpus’ widow, Lisa, and their two sons are eligible for assistance.
“Lisa and Matt’s parents all have the right to come in and file a claim, and I would really welcome that,” said Lynn Flint, the VA’s regional director in Oakland. The family plans to file another claim but has seen firsthand the difficulty of proving that an illness diagnosed post-service may have stemmed from wartime conditions.
Veterans from the 1990-91 Gulf War worked years to convince officials that Gulf War syndrome illnesses were real. And just last month, researchers at UC Davis Cancer Center said veterans exposed to Agent Orange are twice as likely to get prostate cancer as are other veterans – a finding that comes decades after the herbicide was used in Vietnam.
Bumpus, a staff sergeant in the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, was sent Dec. 23, 2003, to guard the Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons complex in Iraq and spent two nights there, his family said.
When they arrived, Bumpus and his comrades encountered a sign that read “Welcome to Mustardville,” and eventually were moved because of radiation readings emanating from the site, according to his family.
Bumpus, a 1995 Roseville High School graduate and defensive lineman for the school’s football team, was a strapping young man who never had been seriously ill, family members said. He joined the Army in August 1996.
He returned from Iraq in late 2004 and left the Army the following year, coming home to Roseville to be with Lisa, his wife and high school sweetheart, and their son, Nathaniel. Soon, Lisa was pregnant with their second son, Aaron, and Bumpus was working as a technician for Comcast.
“In July of 2006, I was home, had a job with a bright future, we were expecting our second child, we had just moved into a house, and life was good!” Bumpus wrote this year on www.iraqradiation.com, a Web site his family set up to alert veterans of potential health risks from service in Iraq.
After returning from Iraq, Bumpus worried he might have been exposed to something at the weapons site that could have long-term effects, his family said, but was assured by the Army there was no reason for concern. Everything seemed fine until one July night in 2006, when he was having trouble sleeping.
“We thought he had the flu, and he got up to use the bathroom,” his wife said. “I heard a bang and went to check, and he had hit the floor.”
Bumpus was rushed to Sutter Roseville Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed appendicitis. Tests done there also found he suffered from a rare form of leukemia – acute myeloid leukemia. According to his medical records, his doctor told him the illness “was related to radiation exposure.”
He began a regimen of chemotherapy and other treatments and eventually racked up $1 million in medical bills, most of which were covered by his health insurance. His illness was in remission by late 2006.
“I returned to work and an almost normal life,” he wrote on the Web site. “I was alive, in remission, and very thankful.”
When his leukemia returned in 2008, he filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs saying the illness was related to his service. The VA denied the claim, noting in the rejection letter that his diagnosis had come more than a year after his separation from the Army.
The VA’s Flint said the original claim did not specifically indicate that Bumpus was claiming he had been exposed to radiation. She said the agency indicated at the time it would consider new information if Bumpus provided it.
Bumpus’ stepmother, Laura, said he told the family he had not mentioned the exposure in the claim because he believed that information was classified. He assumed VA officials would ask him about it, she said.
Earlier this year, Bumpus wrote to Congress seeking help, and he and his family set up the Web site detailing his case and others they had heard of. He was hoping for a bone-marrow transplant, and from his hospital bed helped plan Friday’s silent auction and dinner.
Bumpus died Aug. 3. Two weeks later, his widow received notice from the VA that his case had been the subject of an inquiry from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and that Bumpus could pursue benefits.
The VA asked Bumpus to schedule a new examination at a VA hospital. His widow is drafting a reply noting that “obviously as he is now deceased he cannot comply with this request.” Today, his family waits to see whether the VA will provide compensation to Lisa and their sons, 11-year-old Nathaniel and Aaron, who turns 2 in October.
Nathaniel, who started sixth grade earlier this week, is old enough to understand his father is gone. “The youngest, I don’t think he really understands. He just thinks (his dad) hasn’t come home from the hospital,” Lisa Bumpus said this week. She sat crying on the deck of Laura Bumpus’ Foresthill home. Around her neck hung a chain that holds her husband’s wedding ring.
The VA’s regional director said the Bumpus family is eligible for benefits if the leukemia can be tied to Bumpus’ service. His widow could receive $1,091 in tax-free benefits monthly, and her children $271 a month.
“I’m so sorry this happened,” Flint said, adding that she hopes Bumpus can be recognized as having sacrificed much for his country.
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