Chelsey Simoni Chelsey Simoni (U.S. Army), attends training in front of two, UH-60Q Black Hawk helicopters at Fort Drum, New York in the winter of 2014. (Photo Provided)

Recalling her time as a flight medic in the U.S. Army, Chelsey Simoni had a passion for helping others and a “love for walking the flight line toward the Army medical evacuation helicopter.” She didn’t think about how repeated exposure to combusted fuel from helicopter exhaust or the small, micron-sized particulates from the rotor wash represented a toxic exposure that would impact her day-to-day living for years later. At the age of 25, Chelsey believed herself to be healthy—that is, until she began to suffer from shortness of breath, chest tightness, repeat pleuritis, and pneumonia. She even started coughing up dime-sized blood clots and knew that her symptoms were severe enough to seek medical attention. It was during this time that an emergency medicine physician discovered several nodules on her lungs and urged her to “stop smoking,” noting that her lungs looked like those of a 70-year-old. Surprisingly, Chelsey had never smoked a day in her life.

Chelsey next sought help from her local U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. However, due to the significant wait time for a pulmonary appointment at the VA, she was seen by her civilian health care provider, who indicated that anxiety and stress were the causative factors for her respiratory issues. She was prescribed a nasal spray and anti-anxiety medication to treat her symptoms. Chelsey indicates that, “it took years for her to be correctly diagnosed,” and, “for health care staff to realize it was not psychological.” She notes that this is “a challenge that many of us Veterans face.” Eventually, she was correctly diagnosed with new onset asthma, allergies, chronic bronchitis, and sinusitis. Though several years have passed, Chelsey still finds herself severely short of breath and indicates that, when she wakes up in the morning, she has difficulty breathing until she painfully blows her nose to dislodge the hardened blood clots.

Chelsey Simoni
Chelsey Simoni (U.S. Army) stands in front of the UH-60Q Black Hawk helicopter nicknamed, DUSTOFF, meaning the Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces, during her assignment with the medical flight unit within the 10th Mountain Division in 2013. (Photo Provided)

Unfortunately, Chelsey’s experiences are not unlike those of many other Service Members and Veterans. Toxic exposures and the associated adverse health outcomes are not well defined; therefore, identifying exposures and correlating those exposures to diseases, conditions, and symptoms remains a major challenge. As a result, Service Members and Veterans may go undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed) and untreated, sometimes with fatal outcomes. Sadly, this was the case for a number of Service Members and Veterans Chelsey and her husband knew.

When Chelsey met her husband, Kyle – an Army Veteran who served 8 years, including 15 months in Iraq during the height of the war in 2007-2008 as a Stryker mechanic – he told her that many of his friends died in service while deployed in Iraq. Naturally, she thought that they must have died in combat. While that was true for nine of them, more than twice that number died from cancer. Chelsey began looking into her own platoon members and found that young pilots she knew were dying from pancreatic and brain cancers. Chelsey was baffled. As a self-proclaimed “forever student,” she had to understand why this was happening and was determined to help. Drawing on her education, military service, and experience as a trauma and emergency nurse, Chelsey undertook a scientific, evidence-based investigation into the deaths of Service Members and Veterans from toxic exposures.

While no longer serving in active duty, Chelsey continues to be a champion for those who suffer from cancer due to toxic exposures and indicates that her mission remains the same: “Save as many Service Member and Veteran lives as possible.”

Along with her husband, Kyle, Chelsey established the HunterSeven Foundation, which was named in honor of Kyle’s teammate, U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Bowman, whose call sign was “HUNTER7.” Rob died at the age of 44 from a rare form of bile-duct cancer that, according to his wife, was service connected.1 In his honor, the foundation strives to end preventable cancer deaths in military Veterans by supporting evidence-based research, clinical education, cancer treatments, and care coordination.

Chelsey Simoni
Chelsey Simoni, U.S. Army Veteran, presents clinical and academic findings on toxic exposures, cancer, and screening in post-9/11 military Veterans during the 2022 Academy of Nursing’s Scientific State of the Union in Washington, D.C. (Photo Provided)

The mission of the HunterSeven Foundation, as explained on its website, is “to research military exposures and their impact on the health of the Veteran population, with the intention of sharing the data with the Veteran and health care communities through education to increase awareness of exposures and the impact on Veteran health.” The HunterSeven team includes military Veterans and medical providers who contribute to the mission by publishing new and emerging science in academic journals and presenting educational seminars at symposia and to government agencies and institutions including Congress, the VA, and the White House. Notably, the foundation developed predictive models that leverage demographic data and epidemiological trends to assess cancer risk and are used to complement evidence-based cancer treatments. Using these methods, the HunterSeven team has supported the treatment of more than 1,000 post-9/11 military Service Members and Veterans suffering from cancer or chronic illnesses.

“Our most impactful and humbling experiences are caring for those who served,” says Chelsey.

Chelsey believes that there is still much more to do and emphasizes the importance of aligning the HunterSeven Foundation with groups or organizations that put Warfighters, survivors, cancer patients, and their families front and center.

Chelsey’s lived experience, commitment to bringing awareness to the health impacts of military-related toxic exposures, and support of Service Members and Veterans affected by exposure-related cancers have made her invaluable to the Toxic Exposures Research Program (TERP), where she served as a peer reviewer in fiscal year 2022. By including consumers on peer and programmatic review panels, Chelsey believes the TERP can significantly impact Veterans and Service Members by giving them the ability to share their lived experiences and help civilians understand the impact of military-related toxic exposures. Chelsey believes that the TERP has an opportunity to support research focused not only on the exposures we can visibly identify, but also on those exposures that the “eyes do not see.”

Chelsey hopes that “finding trends, risk factors, and organ systems negatively impacted by [toxic] exposures through [the] TERP will be a lifesaving game-changer for the future of Service Members.”

The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this paper are those of the author(s) and should not be construed as an official Department of Defense position, policy, or decision.

1American Veterans Center. (2016, June 22). Fallen Hero: Sergeant Major Robert Bowman. Retrieved from: 2017/01/sergeant-major-robert-bowman/.

Last updated Wednesday, September 20, 2023