VA records: Veterans 17 times more likely to develop rare eye cancer

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) - A Dade City couple wants to know why a rare eye cancer is showing up at an alarmingly high rate in veterans than in the general population.

According to numbers that the Department of Veterans Affairs provided to Mark and Beth Rutz through a Freedom of Information request, veterans were diagnosed with Choroidal Melanoma at a rate nearly 17 times higher than non-veterans.

Mark Rutz lost an eye to Choroidal Melanoma, a rare cancer that can spread rapidly through the body.

"It's frightening and people need to be aware, because it's out there," said Mark's wife Beth. 

Mark served in Vietnam in 1970-71. He was told Agent Orange won't hurt you.

"I remember a guy going through basic in-doc over in Vietnam, picking up a quart jar of Agent Orange and drinking from it," said Mark.

Now we know Agent Orange causes several types of cancer.

About 1,900 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with Choroidal Melanoma.

"It's rare in the general population," explained Mark.

Based on those numbers, the disease should only show up in about 126 veterans per year, but the numbers provided by the VA are staggering.

From 2008 to 2010, thousands of new cases were diagnosed each year at VA facilities.

In 2008, the VA diagnosed 2,092 cases of Chorodial Melanoma. In 2009 it was 2,237 and in 2010, 2,067 cases were diagnosed.

"They're going way up into the 2,000's at the VA facilities, how is that even possible?" asked Beth Rutz.

"What I know is, it's not rare for veterans, for Vietnam veterans," added Mark.

The numbers have gradually dropped in the years after 2010. Beth believes that is because less and less Vietnam veterans are still alive. She believes the VA has a moral and ethical obligation to investigate why so many veterans developed this disease.

"But, people won't look into that," she said. "Are they at risk of losing their job because they work for the VA? Do they not want to be punished because they are helping something as a whole?"

In mid-August, the Blinded Veterans Association asked Congress and the VA to conduct a comprehensive medical study on Vietnam-era veterans with eye cancer to determine if there is any association with exposure to Agent Orange or any other toxins.

"People are losing their eyes. They're losing their vision, there's grandfathers, great grandfathers," Beth explained.

Mark Rutz has his own take on what's happening.

"Old Navy guys and Army guys are just screwed," he said.

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