Soldier from W. Babylon dies of rare cancer

The coffin of Army Sgt. Bill McKenna is

The coffin of Army Sgt. Bill McKenna is carried out of a funeral home in Lindenhurst. (Jan. 3, 2011) (Credit: Ed Betz)

After a long year of watching the slow death of her husband, Army Sgt. William McKenna, Dina McKenna decided the final goodbye should be dignified without painful lingering.

"Because of my children, I wanted to keep it brief. We've been suffering for a whole year with his cancer and how much he has deteriorated," she said Monday after her husband was buried at Calverton National Cemetery. He died in Florida on Tuesday at the age of 41 from a rare form of lymphoma.

There was no eulogy at his funeral at the Johnstons' Wellwood Funeral Home in Lindenhurst, just a few miles from the West Babylon neighborhood where McKenna grew up.

Instead, funeral home director Eric Johnston spoke of McKenna's service and sacrifice. "When the call of our country was heard, he marched away with abiding faith in his country and his flag," Johnston said.

At the cemetery, a military honor guard conducted a short graveside ceremony, with a bugler playing "Taps" while dozens of mourners cried in the freezing wind. Dina McKenna, flanked by daughters, Katelynn, 13, and Sabrina, 5, was presented with the flag that covered her husband's coffin.

"He will be missed," cousin John Radenacher of Levittown said afterward.

Known as Bill, McKenna was inspired to enlist in the military after the Sept. 11 attacks, his family said.

He was deployed in 2003 and was awarded several awards and medals during two tours in Iraq. It was there he breathed fumes from burning garbage pits outside of the military bases - leading to his fatal cancer, his wife believes.

"The cancer is caused by toxic fumes," she said. Not only did her husband not smoke, but he had the athletic ability of men two decades younger, she said. "He was perfectly healthy when he got in and a mess when he got out."

Some veterans and military advocates fear thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been exposed to toxic smoke from so-called "burn pits."

Dozens of federal lawsuits have been filed against the military defense contractors who operated the bases' garbage pits, exposing American soldiers and military staff "to toxic smoke, ash and fumes generated through the improper disposal of waste in open burn pits," according to a burn pit website run by South Carolina litigation firm Motley Rice.

Dina McKenna said she and her family are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed by Motley Rice against defense contractors Halliburton and KBR.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the veteran's family," James Blue, a spokesman in New York for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, wrote in an e-mail. He added that he couldn't yet comment on McKenna's specific case, but in general, "The Department of Veterans Affairs is concerned about the effects of exposure to toxins produced by burn pits on veterans returning from the current conflicts."

Blue also said that some veterans "could have health problems from such exposures and our experience with earlier conflicts in Vietnam and [the] Gulf War shows we must take such exposures seriously."

Doctors at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, where McKenna was treated for cancer, could not be reached for comment Monday.

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