Mission to serve: Veterans and entrepreneurs join forces to help toxic burn pit victims

When two veteran organizations get together to do something helpful, it is bound to be purposeful and successful. That is exactly what is happening between the founders of Black Rifle Coffee and HunterSeven, who have joined forces to support and fund life-saving research for veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals during their military service.

While they both approach their post-military posts very differently, their mission together makes sense.

Founded in 2014 by former U.S. Army Green Beret Evan Hafer and former U.S. Army Ranger Mat Best, Black Rifle Coffee Company was built upon a mission to serve coffee and culture to people who hold the love of country dear. Known for their unapologetic, in-your-face advertising, cheeky Instagram posts, and, most importantly, premier coffee, they have made their mark by all three driven by a mission that supports veterans, active-duty military, and first responders.

HunterSeven and Black Rifle Coffee Company have joined forces to expose the long-term effects of burn pits located on
U.S. military bases use during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company)

HunterSeven is less in your face.

The foundation, co-founded by Chelsey Simoni, a public health nurse and former member of the Rhode Island Army National Guard, researches military exposures and the impact they have on the health of the veterans who have been exposed to deadly chemicals.

“The foundation is named for the call sign of Sgt. Maj. Rob Bowman, who died after being exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq,” she explained.

Both organizations have joined together to expose the long-term effects these burn pits located on U.S. military bases during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had on soldiers, with Black Rifle Coffee using its cultural impact to raise money for the foundation.

Simoni explained burn pits are “these crater-type holes that are used to place waste,” and the result is they release known carcinogens into the air.

(Courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company)

“I was seeing, over and over again, this pattern of otherwise very healthy veterans returning from deployment developing leukemia, cancer, and these chronic lung conditions, and I knew something wasn’t right,” said Simoni, who said that was research she was doing as part of her undergraduate work.

That research led her to review the health impact of burn pits in Iraq.

The results were startling. “Two weeks of research with over a hundred Iraq War veterans participating confirmed my theory there was a profound increase in these respiratory systems after they returned from deployment,” Simoni explained.

That led her to a new mission: getting veterans across the country tested so they could be treated before the problems progressed beyond help. Her challenge was that it was expensive, the Department of Veterans Affairs was slow-moving, and she needed money and a megaphone to help the nonprofit group complete its mission to provide post-9/11 veterans with information on the long- and short-term consequences of these exposures.

U.S. armored military vehicles are parked in front of a fire in a trash burn pit in 2011 at Forward Operating Base Caferetta Nawzad, Helmand province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Simon Klingert, File)

That is when Black Rifle Coffee stepped up and in.

As Best explains, it was an easy fit. “We began several years ago when we provided a grant that would cover a new round of medical research exploring the effects of toxic exposure in Afghanistan. It was a cause we wanted to champion,” he said.

Chris Mondzelewski, the CEO of Black Rifle Coffee, said the partnership made sense “because we have always been and remain committed to the support of our veterans.”

Black Rifle Coffee Company co-founders Mat Best, left, and Jarred Taylor, second from right, and HunterSeven co-founder Chelsey Simoni, right, meet former congresswoman and U.S. Army Reserve officer Tulsi Gabbard.

Mondzelewski said the partnership between the two organizations began in earnest last November ahead of Veterans Day when Black Rifle Coffee, along with the UFC, joined to raise money for HunterSeven. “Our Veterans Day event with the UFC and HunterSeven Foundation raised over $250,000 in one weekend for veterans battling cancer, and that is just the beginning,” Mondzelewski said.

Simoni’s voice wavered as she explained that the money raised opened the door for hundreds of veterans to be tested for these cancers and respiratory illnesses that would have gone undetected for years.

In a statement at the time of the event, Simoni said that when she looks back on her time in the military, she remembers not just those lost from combat but also those who were lost from cancer once they came home. Simoni said the numbers were staggering of her fellow warriors who were diagnosed with cancer during and after 9/11.

“It is over a half a million,” she said, growing quiet. “One in 7 or more than a half a million of fellow service members.”

“We have the research and capability to save as many veterans through testing. Now, we have the partnership to raise the money to do so,” she said.

HunterSeven uses the funds to test military veterans through early identification and screening, something veterans cannot access or afford through the normal channels because they have not presented yet.

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After the UFC event, CEO Dana White said taking care of the men and women who serve this country is something that has always been important to him and is a matter he and the entire UFC family care deeply about.

“I have been talking about this a lot lately, aligning myself and the UFC with companies that have the same core values. Veterans have put their lives on the line and sacrificed so much to protect our way of life, and I’m proud of the work that we do with partners like Black Rifle Coffee Company to help our vets get the medical care and services they need to live healthier lives,” he said.

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