BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Amy Delcambre is now a single mother of three.
Her husband, Air Force Reserve Tech Sgt. Sean Delcambre died in August 2019 from cancer, a cancer she believes was caused by exposure to hexavalent chromium during the time he worked at Keesler’s 403rd Maintenance Wing. His entire career was spent at the 403rd.
Sean Delcambre was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2018. Just over a year later, he died at age 34.
Amy Delcambre’s youngest daughter Lucia climbed into her lap as she spoke to WLOX in a Zoom interview.
“She was just over 18 months old when Sean passed way,” Amy said of Lucia. “Of course all the time, she says ‘I miss daddy.’ They ask about daddy all the time, they all miss daddy.”
Their three girls are now 7, 5, and 3. They watched as their father faded quickly under the weight of his cancer.
A WLOX News investigation last year uncovered documents showing the 403rd violated OSHA standards for exposure to the chemical during the time Delcambre worked there. Internal memos noted the paint facility at the 403rd had been broken since 2008, and as a result, Air Reserve Technicians spent their days blasting and painting airplane parts in an “open work bay” with “no control of particulates.”
Air Force records confirm those particulates contained hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing ingredient made famous in the movie “Erin Brokovich.”
Multiple documents called for a better decontamination facility beginning in 2012. It took until 2018 for the unit to formally call for a “clean room” to “reduce the spread of CrVI (Hexavalent Chromium).”
The unit installed a temporary clean room earlier this year. They will break ground on a new clean room in October.
Delcambre worked the same job with the 403rd as a reservist and as a full-time civilian employee, a position known as Air Reserve Technician. That civilian position requires that the employee is a reservist. In addition, they wear their uniform and carry their rank every day, even though they are technically civilian employees.
Susan Lukas is the director of Government Affairs for the Reserve Organization of America. She became aware of the hexavalent chromium exposure at Keesler when another former member of the 403rd, Shannon Jackson, contacted her after Delcambre died. He asked if her organization could do anything to help others at the 403rd in similar situations.
Lukas said she believes exposure to hexavalent chromium should be treated like Agent Orange exposure was for Vietnam veterans.
“It is a requirement of the position to maintain military standards,” she said in a Zoom interview last month. “We feel that that exposure during the week should count toward service-connected.”
When Sean Delcambre was diagnosed with cancer, the Air Force said his military benefits didn’t apply. He would have to file for workers' compensation or pay his expenses out of pocket. He died before having a chance to file for worker’s comp.
Another Air Reserve Technician interviewed by WLOX filed for workers' compensation but was denied by the private insurance company. The Air Force never considered his illnesses work-related despite a medical report by the Air Force saying it was.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Amy Delcambre said. “I think these people who are doing a civil service job in a situation where it’s also their reserve job -- in uniform -- should be privileged to VA benefits.”
The ROA is now drafting a law that would require the Department of Defense to treat Air Reserve Technician’s injuries as service-connected.
“There is no time limit to toxic exposure and how the service members' lives are changed forever; their families are changed,” Lukas, herself a veteran who has suffered from chemical exposure, said.
For Amy Delcambre, helping to draft the legislation is something that gives her family a sense of purpose.
“I think that by doing what we’re going to do with Susan, I think it helps give some purpose,” she said. “You know why did this happen. I don’t know why it had to happen to our family. I don’t know why it has to happen to other families, but if we can do something about it that is positive, I know that Sean would be very proud.”
The new reserve health benefits law would be named after Sean Delcambre and Shannon Jackson, who died earlier this year. It is expected to be introduced in Congress in 2021.