This story is part of a multi-part 12 on 12 Digtial Original: A Burning Controversy
PART 1: A SOLDIER’S STORY | PART 2: BATTLING THE BURN | PART 3: HELP AT HOME | PART 4: WASHINGTON RESPONDS | IN-DEPTH EXTRAS | 12 ON 12
(WPRI) — On January 13, 2013, Coleen Bowman said goodbye to her husband of 20 years.
Sergeant Major Robert Bowman passed away after a brave battle with cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. He was 44 years old.
“He loved leading his men. He loved being a dad,” Coleen Bowman told Eyewitness News Reporter Caroline Goggin in a Skype interview last month.
Coleen said a year and a half after her husband got home from his second deployment, he began feeling sick. In June 2011, after six months of dealing with flu-like symptoms, he went to the hospital demanding answers.
“On June 14, 2011, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer,” Coleen explained.
“His doctor was smart enough,” Coleen added. “He had already seen trends in his oncology ward in Texas at Fort Bliss. He saw the red flags right away.”
Coleen said her husband’s doctor ran a ton of tests and determined his cancer wasn’t caused by anything genetic. Instead, he said SGM Bowman’s cancer was caused by a mutation that was likely from the environment.
SGM Bowman would live 19 more months.
“We had conversations before he died about what his expectations were of me,” Coleen said. “He charged me with a mission before he left.”
In the six years since her husband’s passing, Coleen said she has learned so much about toxic exposure. Now serving as the senior advisor on toxic exposure loss at TAPS, or the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, she works one-on-one with survivors who have suffered similar losses.
In 2015, Coleen testified before The Defense Health Board to raise awareness about the issue.
“I’m concerned for the safety of our troops,” she explained. “They put their lives on the line every day… We owe it to them to give them answers.”