Veteran turns advocate after cancer

LaHarpe resident Tim Farmer is speaking out about his throat cancer, which is believed to have been caused by exposure to burn pits in Iraq during his military service there. Federal lawmakers are considering a bill that would establish a permanent funding source for veterans suffering from health conditions caused by burn pits.

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August 2, 2022 - 2:45 PM

Tim Farmer and girlfriend Carey Goodman discuss Farmer’s recovery from throat cancer, which doctors told him was related to his exposure to burn pits while serving in Iraq. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

LAHARPE — It’s sobering to think of decisions you’d make if you’re certain you’re about to die.

Tim Farmer adapted a practical approach.

He’d pay his bills the moment they arrived. He’d cut his lawn to the lowest possible setting, to remove any extra burdens on his loved ones if they had to make due with him gone.

In fact, he kept his throat cancer diagnosis secret to many family and friends for years. Some still don’t know.

There was a smidgeon of selfishness in his thought process, he admits.

“I didn’t want my family worrying,” Farmer said. “And I couldn’t handle a bunch of phone calls. That way, if I died, I died, ya know?”

His outlook is considerably brighter since his original prognosis.

The throat cancer that ravaged his body for more than two years is now in remission. His last checkup in late June came back clean, giving Farmer some peace of mind until his next appointment in September.

His rebound — Farmer was given a 25% chance of survival by one doctor, 30% by another — also plays a role in his decision to speak out now.

That and the goings-on in Washington, D.C., have his rapt attention for more ways than one.

See, Farmer’s illness is suspected to be tied to his exposure to burn pits while serving in Iraq.

The fact that the symptoms didn’t arise until 15 years after he left Iraq with the Kansas Army National Guard’s 891st Engineer Battalion may be the scariest aspect of them all, Farmer admits.

“I’ve been told before I should speak out, to be an advocate,” Farmer said. “I’d always said, ‘Nah,’ but here I am now.”

Farmer, age 63, is speaking out as federal lawmakers are debating a bill that would set up a permanent funding source for veterans suffering health issues stemming from exposure to burn pits.

Farmer expects the bill, which has drawn broad bipartisan support until screeching to a halt late last week, to pass, hopefully sooner than later.

“Most of us who went over were young, and probably in pretty good shape,” Farmer said Monday. “But some of us sacrificed, and now they’re getting sick.”

FARMER GREW up in Iola, and was a crackerjack athlete, “but I was too poor to focus much on sports,” he noted.

So instead, he’d work after school, or spend his idle time hunting or fishing.

It was after high school, and bereft of much of an opportunity to make a name for himself through college, that Farmer chose a logical route for those of his ilk. He enlisted.

“I really wanted to be a Marine,” he noted, but fate intervened when he trekked to a recruiter’s office in Independence.

See, the Marine recruiter was out of the office for the month, but a Naval recruiter next door was open for business.

It took some light-hearted back and forth before the recruiter convinced Farmer to give the Navy a try.

He agreed, even recommending the recruiter arrange to have him sent off to basic training immediately, “so I couldn’t change my mind.”

His original intention was to serve for four years and then go back to civilian life.

That four-year commitment turned into 12.

“I loved it,” he said. “But I think they loved me more.”

Farmer developed a reputation, even listed in his evaluations, that “Tim volunteers.”

If a task needed doing, or a new project was about to unfold, he was usually first in line.

“They used to get mad at me,” Farmer laughed. “‘Tim, you’ve gotta quit doing that. We’re gonna lose you.’”

Farmer eventually did move on to a special program, where he would train reservists.

After a dozen years, however, he was ready to leave.

“They kept trying to get me to stay, and they got mad when I got out,” he recalled. “But I was done.”

But retirement didn’t last long.

Farmer befriended Don Dennis of Uniontown because both had an affinity for hunting and fishing.

“Next thing I know, I started getting calls from National Guard recruiters,” Farmer said. 

That’s because Dennis was a maintenance supervisor for the National Guard in Iola.

Farmer relented, enlisted with the 891st, and again found military life enjoyable.

He was tasked as an AWOL recovery officer. If a Guardsman failed to show when required, it was up to Farmer to find them and haul them back.

Those duties changed in late 2004, when Farmer was part of the 891st Battalion’s yearlong deployment to Iraq. 

The Battalion’s duties revolved around military and civil engineering projects in Iraq. Farmer’s portion was a bit more specific.

“Everything we blew up, we rebuilt, or we let (the Iraqis) rebuild it,” he said.

For Farmer that meant first throughly inspecting every piece of equipment, from dozers to graders, to ensure they weren’t booby-trapped.

Then, he’d supervise as those same vehicles would move destroyed remnants of buildings, roads or anything else into city block-sized burn pits.

“We didn’t have time to clean things up, we’d just haul it off and burn it,” he said. 

For up to 12 hours a day, in temperatures often soaring above 130 degrees, Farmer would be at the burn sites, rarely with any protection aside from the clothes he wore. He had no special gas masks or other apparatus.

“It stinks so bad over there,” both metaphorically and literally. “They’d leave the fire burnin’ all day, let it smolder all night and cover it with dirt. Then the next day, they’d open it up all so it would start burning again.

“It was worse than miserable,” he said. “I don’t know why people would want to extend their service just for the money.”

The time took its toll. Farmer would vomit, sometimes daily, because of the searing heat.

“You couldn’t even think about drinking milk products,” he noted. “If I had to walk somewhere, that’s when I’d throw up. Then, I’d start shaking so badly.”

When the 891st returned in late 2005, Farmer knew it was time to retire, this time fully.

“They tried to promote me,” he recalled. “But I turned it down. I’d already done my time. Like I said, I loved the military, but they always seemed to love me more. I gave the best 25 years of life to the military.”

Farmer also declined a job offer to work in Iraq as a civilian contractor for more than twice his salary.

He carries high praise for those with whom he served, and many of whom are still in the 891st.

“Those guys are very unique,” he said. “They’re the best of the best.”

Occasionally, often randomly, Farmer will bump into a former colleague. Their brief chats would turn into hour long discussions, he laughed.

Even better, those health ailments that plagued Farmer overseas went away once he returned stateside, though it still took some adjustment to get back to civilian life.

“I was so wound up that many nights I couldn’t sleep,” he recalled. “I’d go out, go hunting, do things like that.”

Once back home, Farmer worked for a spell in the oil fields until retiring for good in 2015, intent on enjoying a more leisurely pace.

Veterans on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Saturday discuss the PACT Act, which would set up a permanent funding source for veterans suffering health issues stemming from exposure to burn pits. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

HE’S NOT SURE when exactly the symptoms began.

“At first, I just had a raspy voice,” he said. “Then I’d start coughing.”

Perhaps more out of pride, or pure stubbornness, Farmer largely ignored the symptoms.

“I was always in super good shape, all my life,” he said. “I suspected something was wrong, but like a lot of people, I kept putting it off.”

By late 2019, those symptoms were worsening, to the point his girlfriend, Carey Goodman, started to notice. “He just didn’t sound right,” she said.

Then he noticed the knot in his neck.

He finally relented, knowing what the doctor was going to say. “Tim, there’s something wrong with you.”

“Actually, I was prepared for them to say it was too late.”

A Veterans Affairs doctor referred Farmer to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who immediately took a biopsy from his neck.

Tumors were found in his throat, neck and tongue.

“And then it was on,” Farmer said.

Such cancers are most often found with chronic smokers, or perhaps those who consume smokeless tobacco.

Farmer, however, had none of those vices. “I’ve never smoked,” he said.

A TRACHEOTOMY followed his diagnosis. On Jan. 5, 2020, he began radiation treatments.

Doctors inserted a feeding tube, which became infected. Another surgery followed.

Farmer received permission from the VA to seek treatment wherever he could, from Tulsa to Wichita or Kansas City, even Chanute.

The prognosis was grim, but Farmer was resolute.

“Tim, I can take care of you,” one doctor said. “We can make this happen.”

“You do your job, Doc, and I’ll do mine,” Farmer replied. 

While he kept his illness largely secret from family and friends, word still began to creep out.

He once recalled seeing an acquaintance while he was waiting to see a doctor.

Farmer immediately began doing jumping jacks, more as a stubborn facade of virility than anything.

But as the treatments continued, Farmer grew weaker. He suspects he came down with COVID-19 early on in his illness, “but this was before we had even known what COVID was,” he recalled.

For most of his adult life, Farmer weighed a solid 210 pounds, and was as strong as a proverbial ox.

But as he ate less, and the pain increased, he lost weight at an alarming pace.

At his lightest, Farmer weighed 136 pounds.

“My neck was so burned up and crusted,” he said. “I’d have to wear a special thing around my neck, but I’d still pick off scabs.”

If it wasn’t for Carey, or Farmer’s younger sister, Tammy, he’s convinced he wouldn’t have survived the treatment.

“I know there are some guys who would take this on themselves,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it.”

As others learned of Farmer’s illness, they, too, stepped forward to lend a hand however they could.

His medical treatment costs are being covered by the VA — more on that later — but incidental expenses also needed to be covered.

“I have to tell you, the Allen County community is wonderful,” he said. Friends would stop by with gift cards to cover transportation costs. “I’ve got a lot of friends,” even more than he realized ever knew his name.

SLOWLY but surely, the tables turned. The cancer was blasted out of existence — for now — and Farmer has adjusted well to his post-illness recovery.

He weighs about 170 pounds, and understands he’ll likely not come close to his former physical condition.

“My taste buds have only been back a little while,” he said. “I have to eat little bitty things, because a lot of things still don’t taste right. If it doesn’t taste right, I can’t eat it. We’ll have to go to smorgasbords, so I can try little things, sample stuff.”

He’s rarely without a bottle of water, to help soothe his aching throat.

It’s an inconvenience he’s happy to live with.

“I’m lucky to be alive.”

FARMER considers himself lucky, yet rueful because he delayed seeing a doctor for so long.

That’s why he’s speaking out now.

In retrospect, Farmer knows of at least five other Guardsmen with whom he’s served who at one point or another were diagnosed with cancer.

“I’m the only one still living,” he noted.

It’s with that sense of urgency that Farmer is encouraging others to see doctors, even for seemingly benign symptoms of a sore throat or a stiff neck.

And he’s also watching as lawmakers hammer out legislation to cover medical care costs for burn pit exposure.

Farmer said his doctors at the VA have confirmed to him his throat cancer was almost certainly linked to his work around burn pits. They’ve already begun the lengthy paperwork process for his costs to be covered when (or if) the legislation is approved.

“That’s why I’m speaking up now,” he repeated. “Hopefully, this helps other veterans step forward. Nobody dead can do anything for us.”

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