Hidden danger: Veteran-founded non-profit supports vets grappling with toxic exposures


PROVIDENCE, RI – Advocacy, support, and hope.  Those are three things that veterans urgently need when dealing with the complicated world of health issues from exposure to toxic materials.  And those are three things that one veteran-founded nonprofit provides — along with so much more.

The HunterSeven Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that evaluates toxic exposures in the military population, and examines the effects of such exposures on the health of active service members and veterans in the post-9/11 era.

Toxic environmental exposures in military settings encompass far more than the widely-reported “burn pits,” or open-air holes used largely in Southwest Asia to dispose of trash and other waste material by burning.

Military service members also encounter heavy metals, fuel and exhaust fumes, and significant air pollution, to name just a few environmental hazards.


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Sand alone can cause significant damage, as inhaled microscopic particles work their way past the lungs’ natural defenses and deposit deep in the airways, causing respiratory issues.

92 percent of veterans who served in the Global War on Terror reported exposure to toxins during their deployment. 

However, it is a monumental and daunting task to tackle the complex history of these exposures, their potential health effects, and the coordination of exposure-related care for active and veteran service members.

Enter HunterSeven.

The HunterSeven Foundation originated from a simple but poignant conversation.  Army veteran and nurse Chelsey Simoni was struck one day by the words of her future husband Kyle, an Iraq war veteran.  Kyle mentioned to her that a lot of his friends from his time of service had died — not in war, but after returning home, from illnesses such as respiratory maladies or cancer.

One of these friends was SgtMaj. Rob Bowman, call sign HUNTER7, who died at the age of 44 from a very rare form of bile duct cancer. 

Deeply affected by these deaths, and dedicated to serving her fellow veterans, Simoni chose in 2015 to delve into researching environmental toxins and their effects on service members, augmenting an already-established career of service to others as an Army medic and, later, a nurse in a civilian setting.

In 2018, Simoni created the HunterSeven Foundation, naming the organization in honor of SgtMaj. Bowman.

Hidden danger: Veteran-founded non-profit supports vets grappling with toxic exposures
SgtMaj. Rob Bowman, callsign HUNTER7. Photo courtesy of HunterSeven Foundation.

HunterSeven takes a three-pronged approach to serving the veteran community, via research, education of military service members as well as their health care providers, and coordination of care and resources.

In terms of research, the organization has compiled an extensive database of veteran-specific statistics including deployment locations, ailments, and military occupational specialty (MOS).  Some conditions have been found to be concentrated within certain units that deployed together, strongly reinforcing the idea that environmental hazards have deeply affected the health of our veterans.

Simoni and her associates published a particularly notable research paper in May of 2020, in which they reported evidence that Iraq War veterans experienced significant decreases in physical fitness and increases in respiratory symptoms post-deployment.

For this study, “A Pilot Study of Airborne Hazards and Other Toxic Exposures in Iraq War Veterans,” a cohort of military combat veterans who served in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 volunteered to submit health information pre- and post-deployment.  These veterans had documented exposures to environmental toxins while deployed, most significantly from burn pits.

Some findings included an 80% incidence of shortness of breath with exercise post-deployment, compared to a 4% incidence pre-deployment.  Also, 34.5% of respondents experienced neuropathy post-deployment, compared to 2.7% pre-deployment.  Strikingly, 99% of respondents experienced joint or muscle pain post-deployment, as opposed to a mere 3.6% pre-deployment.


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Another very significant paper is forthcoming.  In December 2021, HunterSeven will be releasing its findings on a study of exposures in Afghanistan veterans.

Veterans affected by envionmental toxins are more than just numbers on a spreadsheet to Simoni, however.  

She told us:

“These are all real stories and real names.”

Simoni spoke to us with sadness and respect about many service members on her list who were lost to exposure-related illness, including 30-year-old Las Vegas police officer, veteran, wife, and mother, Crystal Sanchez.

Sanchez was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 28 after returning home from deployment in Afghanistan.  After chemotherapy put her into a 9-month remission, her cancer returned with a vengeance, spreading throughout her body.  She passed away in August, 2020 at age 30, leaving behind a husband and a 6-year-old daughter.

Simoni expressed HunterSeven’s mission to help other families avoid such heartbreak, writing in an email honoring Sanchez:

“Our mission goes further though, preventing this from happening, the suffering and pain the Sanchez-Sims family suffers as well as others lost to cancers.”


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Regarding the educational piece of their work, HunterSeven seeks to encourage health care providers to take a more holistic approach to medical care, including looking back at a veteran’s deployment history and possible exposures, rather than dealing solely with a current symptom picture.

Simoni told us:

“If we’re not doing our jobs as health care providers and not looking at the big picture, in broad spectrum, like these [environmental] risk factors, then we’re not doing a good job….

“We need to stop thinking so tertiary, so downstream.  We need to jump back to the secondary prevention, primary prevention, screening. 

“Just being proactive in your health is such a big deal.  But if you don’t get the health care provider buy-in from this, then nothing is going to change.”

HunterSeven supporter Megan Thatford added:

“For many in the veteran community that have documented exposures, seeking treatment through functional medicine has been tremendously successful.

“Working with a provider that takes a holistic approach to care, and is focused on finding the root causes of dysfunction, versus just simply writing prescriptions, is so beneficial, and is a much more productive way to restore one’s health.”

Interaction with health care providers regarding a proactive, holistic, functional approach has so far been completely positive.

Simoni told us:

“When we get the opportunity to sit there and speak to a health care provider about potential exposures of the military community, explaining the who, what, where, when, why and how, and this is why it’s important, and this is where it will save you money in the long term, providers are interested.”

The challenge, she added, lies in getting the right information to the right people.

Simoni went on to say:

“It’s just … not knowing the risk factors, not knowing the prevalence rates, not knowing the impact this could have on somebody’s life, not knowing how important it is to ask the question, ‘Are you a veteran or have you served?’

“… It’s just getting that information out on a larger scale.”

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Education for veterans and their health care providers is of course intertwined, as environmental exposures are not necessarily at the forefront of medical workers’ thinking, making it necessary for veterans to advocate for themselves when it comes to approaching a physician with symptoms or concerns.

HunterSeven makes it very easy for veterans to arm themselves with information on specific exposures during their deployments, with just a few mouse clicks.

Under the “Education” tab on the HunterSeven website, veterans can visit an exposure map and click on the regions in which they served, in order to find records of possible exposures.

In addition, HunterSeven’s Instagram page has an awareness campaign called “Understand Your Exposures” that addresses exposure-related veteran health.

Thatford told us that this campaign is: 

“to educate people by providing reliable resources that are medically proven, not speculation, not an opinion.

“All information that is being distributed by HunterSeven is medically published data and research.  

“The personal stories shared have all been submitted by family, friends, or teammates.  The combination of statistics and personal stories has been very impactful in raising awareness for this topic.”

She added:

“Since the campaign began in March, the dialogue around exposures has expanded.

“This is what we hoped to achieve and strive to continue.”


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As for the third prong of HunterSeven’s approach, in the area of care and resources, HunterSeven offers their “Immediate Needs Program.”

HunterSeven has been able to connect veterans to health care providers, help navigate and coordinate medical care plans, and even offset some medical costs.

The organization does not provide medical care, but it welcomes veterans to contact them for help and support, saying on its website:

“Each request is unique and we are committed to finding the best resource for those that are in need of support. Our door never closes. 

“Our teammates are our priority. So no matter the question or concern, if we don’t have an answer or a solution to your problem, we’ll assure we find one.”

Simoni told us:

“We do try to navigate the health care system for them, or we’ll find somebody who can help them, and then go from there…. 

“We do a lot of coordination for care, making sure that there’s no lapse in health care.  We leverage our partnerships with other top-tier organizations to get them assistance.”

Simoni added:

“I’m very optimistic about VA health care, and that’s not a statement you will hear very often.  But you get in what you put out.  And so, just because one thing doesn’t work out, there’s always another way to go about it….

“Not only do you have the biggest health care system, but the biggest government body…. It’s going to take a while to get things all coordinated, but there’s always a way that we try to help people get around an issue, especially if they need immediate care.  We’ll get them that.”


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One recent successful intervention on behalf of a veteran occurred with a 33 year old Marine who had been deployed six times to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa.  On his last deployment, mortar round explosions left him, his battalion, and nearby civilians exposed to a considerable amount of mustard gas.

After deployment, this Marine was diagnosed with two forms of cancer.  Radiation therapy also triggered an autoimmune response, resulting in severely detrimental physical effects such as cyclic fevers, vomiting, and the inability to walk.

HunterSeven was able to defray the cost of an expensive but uncovered medication the Marine needed for treatment, and ultimately after further intervention and negotiation, TriCare ended up covering the medication.

HunterSeven also looks out for loved ones of veterans.

The organization recognizes the importance of family in terms not only of assessing and reporting the symptoms and overall health of veterans, but also the integral role family plays in treatment and healing.

As such, the nonprofit works hard to include family members in the treatment process, and it has covered travel expenses for family members to be with their loved ones during treatment.

Simoni told us:

“Not being alone during such a significant period in your life like this, is huge.  

“So we are trying to do things like that, incorporate family, making sure that we incorporate widows and survivors in terms of remembrances and stuff like that….

“However we can help them out, we’ll do it.”

Even though HunterSeven deals with somber subjects such as premature deaths and often frightening diagnoses, the organization hopes to emphasize positivity and empowerment through its outreach, by pointing veterans and their health care providers toward proactive medicine and consequent early diagnosis and treatment.

Thatford told us:

“Some people who are maybe not feeling well or experiencing symptoms see a provider, and the provider tells them they don’t see anything wrong, discounts their symptoms, or just gives a prescription.

“This leaves them feeling discouraged and defeated, and they’re still feeling lousy physically.  In some cases this can send people into a downward spiral.”


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She added:

“HunterSeven is solution-based…. By helping people understand their exposures and providing fact-based information, we empower them to have productive conversations and move ahead with the health care outlets, which in turn gives them more hope.

“If we can provide that hope and those solutions, then the education and awareness is very effective.”

Thanks to advocacy, support, and hope from the HunterSeven Foundation, veterans have found their way through a maze of complicated and confusing obstacles on their path to diagnosis and treatment of exposure-related conditions. 

For Simoni, who has dedicated her military and professional nursing life to serving others, HunterSeven offers one additional way to help her veteran brothers and sisters.

She told us:

“This is the best way I can give back to the veteran community I love so much….

“Selfless service is in our blood.  It’s just how we do things.”

The HunterSeven Foundation is funded by generous donations from individual donors as well as veteran-owned companies.  Supporters can give a one-time or recurring donation to HunterSeven at this donation page.


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