Retired New Mexico National Guard Master Sgt. David Montoya hopes a clinical trial in Texas can help save his life
FARMINGTON — After two combat tours in Iraq, a local veteran is now fighting a battle against cancer.
And his friends and family are trying to raise the money necessary to help David Montoya, a retired master sergeant with the New Mexico National Guard, receive treatment in Houston.
Montoya, 44, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2012 while serving at the National Guard Armory in Farmington.
"It happened so fast I had to have emergency surgery," Montoya recalled last week.
He said the tumor in his colon nearly caused the organ to burst. At the time, his prognosis was good. Doctors removed the tumor, and chemotherapy destroyed cancerous cells in his lymph nodes.
But at a cancer screening in February 2014, Montoya learned that the cancer was back, and, this time, it was in his lungs.
"That was quite a shock," said Summer Martinez, Montoya's girlfriend who attended the appointment with him.
The Farmington nurse said she had to force herself to step back and trust the doctors.
"I had to just put it in their hands and have faith that they will take care of him the best they can," she said.
After the lung cancer diagnosis, Montoya started traveling to Glenwood Springs, Colo., for treatment. Eventually, the disease forced him to retire from the military in January 2015.
But earlier this year, doctors in Colorado told Montoya they couldn't do anything else for him and he would have to seek help elsewhere, such as clinical trials at M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston.
When Martinez realized how expensive travel to Houston would be, she started a GoFundMe account to raise money.
"It was one thing I did not want him to stress about," she said.
So far, the account has collected more than $6,800, and Martinez's colleagues at Southwestern Companies raised $1,500 through a Frito pie sale.
Sgt. Sondra Lansing and other National Guard members have also organized a Navajo taco sale to raise money.
Lansing, who has known Montoya for four years, said he taught her about the military when she was a private.
“He guided me in learning a lot about the military,” she said.
Despite Montoya's dedication to the military, the Farmington man said it's his service that could be responsible for the cancer. Genetic tests have shown that the cancer is not hereditary, he said.
That, he said, didn't surprise him. He said the cause of the cancer was not a mystery.
"I knew it was the burn pits," he said.
Montoya is among dozens of veterans throughout the country who have sued Halliburton and KBR Inc., companies that were contracted by the military to dispose of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a lawsuit filed in July 2015 in Santa Fe District Court, the veterans claim the companies burned hazardous waste in open air pits near their living quarters.
"I slept right by one for a year," Montoya said.
In court documents, Halliburton and its former subsidary KBR state they were operating under the direction of the U.S. government when burning waste and are therefore not responsible for any possible health consequences.
"At the limited number of bases where KBR operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military," KBR said in a statement emailed to The Daily Times. "Government studies and reports show that military personnel deployed to Southwest Asia were exposed to many hazardous conditions, including the harsh ambient air. The government’s best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded there is no link between any long term health issues and burn pit emissions."
Although Montoya is skeptical he will ever recover money from the lawsuit, Montoya said he wants the companies to be held accountable.
When Montoya was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, he was told his terminal cancer was treatable but not curable, meaning doctors could only keep the cancer from spreading.
Last year, doctors estimated Montoya had two years left to live. Now, Montoya said, doctors have told him they don't know if they can even treat the cancer.
"It's buying me time," he said about the chemotherapy. "It's buying me six months, a year."
Montoya's desire to help others has extended outside of the military. He has coached youth sports in Farmington and has helped with community service projects, such as coat drives. He said putting others first is part of who he is.
"That's what I do, or did," he said.
He said the community's support has been a comfort to him as he battles cancer.
"It means a lot to me just to see how many people in some way, shape or form I've touched in the past," he said.
Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.
If you go
What: Food sale for David Montoya
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 23
Where: National Guard Armory, 1101 W. Navajo St.
More info: 505-427-9172
Donate online: gofundme.com/davidemontoya