The ultimate price

Matt Bumpus gave his life for his country— years after leaving the battlefield

Before he died, Sgt. Matt Bumpus believed his illness was caused by chemicals and radiation he was exposed to in Iraq.

Before he died, Sgt. Matt Bumpus believed his illness was caused by chemicals and radiation he was exposed to in Iraq.

Courtesy Of bumpus family

On Christmas Eve 2003, Matt Bumpus stood guard outside a cavernous bunker on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. Inside were several 50-gallon drums filled with something unknown. Something bad. Nearly three years later, lying in a hospital bed in Sacramento, the memory of that night and those drums would come back to him.

As a teenager, Matt was an active young man, who stood 6 feet 2 inches with broad shoulders and played football for Roseville High School. He joined the Army in 1996, a year after he graduated. At the time, he thought that “it was kind of one of those macho things to do. Join the infantry and be a tough guy, play with guns and things that blow up.”

During his years in the military, he reached the ranks of staff sergeant, command section sergeant and Stryker vehicle commander—serving stateside and in Korea. He was sent to Iraq in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq war.

In that year, Bumpus saw heavy combat, but he was reluctant to tell war stories. “It’s not something he ever really wanted to talk about,” his stepmother Laura Bumpus recalled. But he did tell SN&R that during his time in Iraq he was exposed to petroleum and other chemicals used in vehicle maintenance, and to depleted uranium used in old tank and artillery rounds left over from the first Gulf war. “I don’t think there was ever any cleanup effort,” he said.

While stationed in Mosul, Matt was given a mission that he believed changed his life forever—though its importance wasn’t clear to him at the time. On Christmas Eve of 2003, Matt said he and his fellow soldiers were sent to a former Iraqi military facility where an Iraqi national was suspected of selling some type of chemical for use in IEDs—improvised explosive devices.

What the soldiers found there was a cavernous bunker that appeared to have been intentionally sealed off and then cut into to create an inside passage. Inside the bunker itself, Matt said he saw “a huge chamber of old ammunitions, like large artillery ammunitions, and big 55-gallon-style drums full of we don’t know exactly what.”

The soldiers caught their suspect and then began investigating the building. Matt stood outside the main chamber where the strange drums sat. The soldiers were told to put on their protective gear, and after several hours, they were told the drums “tested positive for chemical agents and for nerve agents,” Bumpus told SN&R. At that point the higher-ups moved to “somewhere in the vicinity of a mile off the bunker, just so we could over watch the entire area but still not be directly on it.”

That night, Matt didn’t think much of the incident. “It was just kind of like another day in Iraq. Most guys think, ‘Well, no one was shooting at us, no one was shooting rockets from mortars at us, so it was a pretty good day.’”

In July 2006, Matt was back home with his family, his wife Lisa and their 8-year-old son Nate. They were expecting their second boy, Aaron, and Matt had a good job working for Comcast. After his time in Iraq, Bumpus was a little worse for wear. He was receiving a 10 percent disability from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for a wrist and shoulder injury. He was also suffering some hearing loss, which he attributed to his rifle training, mechanical work and his proximity to frequent explosions in Iraq.

Then on July 31, Matt woke in the middle of the night with an intense pain in his side. It hurt so badly that he could not stand up without falling flat on his face. He was rushed to the hospital and there learned he was suffering from acute appendicitis.

Within hours, however, the appendicitis lead doctors to learn that Matt had also developed acute myelogenous leukemia, a highly aggressive cancer. Matt’s father, Bob Bumpus, recalled that “he was told by his doctors, ‘You might not make it through the night.’” He was also told by his doctors that some of his cells showed “chromosome damage due to radiation exposure.”

Veterans Affairs denied Matt Bumpus’ claim that his leukemia was related to his service in Iraq. That could affect the benefits his family receives.

Courtesy Of bumpus family

As far as Matt knew, back home, he had never been exposed to radiation, at least not beyond the background radiation we all experience. His mind returned to Iraq, to depleted uranium and to that bunker in Mosul, the one with the drums full of chemicals.

Matt did make it through the night, and thanks to treatment with drugs and chemotherapy, his leukemia went into remission at the end of 2006.

Matt filed another disability claim with the VA. But the VA denied him, on the basis that his leukemia had not been diagnosed, according to the rejection letter, “within one year from the date of separation from service.” Matt said that he could not understand why the VA is denying a claim based on this timetable. “Especially when their timetable doesn’t have anything do with what the medical evidence at this point has shown,” meaning AML can take years to manifest.

Following his diagnosis and the denial of his claim from the VA, Matt’s stepmother Laura set up the Web site in October 2006. Through her site, Laura says that she has been contacted by a dozen veterans and civilians diagnosed with AML after spending time in Iraq. Four of those diagnosed spent time in Mosul, and one of them is the same age as Matt, she said.

Unfortunately, Matt’s AML returned in March 2008. Matt’s employer was providing him with health-care coverage, but he continued to press his claim with the VA.

He was also surprised to learn that he had not been told of “the Gulf war exam,” a two-day comprehensive medical exam that is free for any service member returning from the Middle East. Dumbstruck that he wasn’t informed of tests that could have prolonged his life, Matt told SN&R, “Honestly, I can’t imagine there being a logical reason that the Gulf war exam is not more incorporated into the medical screening of soldiers returning from overseas.”

During the spring and summer of this year, Matt received chemotherapy and other treatments at Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento, while he waited for a needed bone-marrow transplant match. The chemotherapy he received made him extremely lethargic, which was especially difficult, because he was once an athletic and active man. And because Matt’s chemo treatments depressed his immune system, he was unable to be home with his two young sons. On August 3, at 31 years of age, Matt died at Sutter Roseville Medical Center, surrounded by family and friends.

Matt’s family is dedicated to telling veterans of Matt’s story. They hope to start a nonprofit organization that increases awareness of chemicals that people are being exposed to in the Gulf, and the availability of the Gulf war exam and its significance. Because many returning soldiers are purely focused on getting home, Matt wanted soldiers to at least be made aware that it is available and have the risks of diseases properly explained to them.

“Obviously not everybody is going to come back and develop something,” Matt said. “But for those of us who do, the sooner treatment can start, the sooner a health issue can be recognized, the better chance you’re going to have. It can be a pretty devastating situation for individuals who do, and families—people don’t really realize it till they’re faced with it.”

Ideally, Matt thought that returning soldiers should have an initial test within six months of returning home, and then be tested again 18 months to two years later. If Matt had not been struck with appendicitis when he was, his stepmother believes that he could have died much earlier from the aggressive cancer. Matt said he wanted soldiers to know the two-day exam is worth sitting through “because it could come down to their life depending on it someday.”

Just one week after Matt’s death, his family learned that the VA had reopened his claim. Laura believes this was due to political pressure from Matt’s supporters—including U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

“Here is somebody who served our country for nine-and-a-half years. He was in heavy combat,” said Laura Bumpus. He believed, and his family believes, that his service in Iraq cost him his life. “But he was never bitter. He believed very strongly in what he did and never wanted to change any of it.”

In the days before Matt passed away, Laura Bumpus confided to SN&R, “The thing hardest for him is worrying what’s going to happen to his wife and kids, how he’s going to care for them.”