Sister Soldier: A Chronicle of Life After Iraq
By R. B. STUART
With each movement on the battlefields of Iraq, a soldier steps in a new direction, their lives forever changed by wounds borne out of OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM.
The military men and women may return as different creatures, although facing their lives in the very same way: as Veteran's. These new veteran's are bringing with them a host of challenging physical and psychological wounds, the most apparent are missing limbs. And nearly one out of five OIF vet's have mental illness/ PTSD [April 2005, Long Term Cost of War by Chaplain David Scharff], who points out, 'PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal situation.' And at any given time there are 800 soldiers in Med Hold at Walter Reed Army Medical Center [WRAMC] in D.C. where most soldiers are medEvac.
But it is those soldiers, men and women, of every race, and spanning each age bracket and rank are carrying home an invisible disease, an airborne toxin acquired in theatre: Cancer. The weapons of mass destruction are our own munitions loaded with depleted Uranium [DU]. Once the DU dust is inhaled or ingested it penetrates the entire body, absorbed by each cell where it will live and continue to emit radiation throughout the soldiers life....unaware he/she has been exposed....until they succumb to cancer.
When in theatre there are military regulations to follow to prevent such happenings, first being, a mask, protective clothing and information of the dangers of radiation inhalation or ingestion. As we've seen preempting the war, with September 11th, amongst FDNY and Emergency Medical Workers, their being ill informed of the hazards is now marked with illness and death. If the soldiers were forewarned of the radiological dangers of DU with the war in Iraq...would they have been less likely to go? The DoD appears only concerned with embedded DU fragments, or soldiers that have ingested DU dust at the range of 50 meters or less at the time of munition penetration. And the longer they highlight those particulars---in the wake of their selective ignorance, more will return with cancer.
In March 2005, the DoD Analysis Division of Army Statistics [U. S. Military Casualties Operation Iraqi Freedom] reported 17,184 Army Medical Evacuations from theater (March 2003 to Feb. 2005). In that time frame 2,278 soldiers were Wounded in Action - 5,098 Non-Battle wounds and 9,808 medEvac for Disease. Although, some soldiers are not returning at all as suicide rates for soldiers deployed to OIF were higher than recent Army historical rates (15.6 suicides per 100,000 soldiers per year, occurring between Jan. - Oct. 2003, July being the highest month compared to the average annual rate of 11.9 per 100,000 over the eight year period of 1995-2002), states the Dec. 2003 Review of Soldier Suicides Chartered by the U. S. Army Surgeon General.
Since March 2006 I reported encounters with other soldiers diagnosed with cancer at WRAMC. The most recent, Transportation Battalion Staff Sergeant Frank Valentin, a 34 year-old Brooklyn native who was based for two years at the port of Kuwait City on the Iraq/ Kuwait boarder in Camp Spearhead. The camp is situated in the middle of two oil refineries, a cement factory, a chlorine factory and a sulfuric acid factory. He and other soldiers who assisted in the movement control of equipment knew immediately when their eyes began to burn, the skin on their face felt hot and mucus dripped from their nose, that they were in a cesspool of toxic chemicals and noxious fumes. Valentin said the soldiers tried complaining , "But nobody wanted to hear it---we just stayed quiet. They just wanted us to do our job."
Within eight months Valentin knew something was wrong when he started to experience discomfort in his anal area and went to the Medics. Valentin stated, "They (the military) think soldiers are faking it because they don't want to work and want to get out of being in Iraq." Without doing proper testing he was diagnosed with hemorrhoids and sent back to work, but the pain and discomfort continued, as did his doctors visits. But Valentin instinctively knew something was wrong. Finally after seeing a dozen doctors, all diagnosing him with hemorrhoids, did the last doctor a Reservist Oncologist order an x-ray, only to find it was colon cancer. The reservist told Valentin their were six other soldiers that were diagnosed with cancer, Valentin himself knew of three others that had been diagnosed, one with leukemia, one with Hodgkins Lymphoma and another with a non-malignant brain tumor.
"Between the chemicals in the air overseas, the shots they (the military) give you and not eating well or sleeping more than four hours a day you're body just isn't strong enough to fight anything off. Right now it's cancer, cancer, cancer. A lot of these kids at 21 years-old are coming back with cancer. How did they get it? How did it happen to me when I was healthy," he questioned.
In 2005 Valentin was medEvac from Iraq to WRAMC where he underwent surgery. It was during that surgery that the doctors discovered the cancer had advanced. They cut his rectum, burnt the tumors off of his liver and found 17 nodules on both lungs where it had spread . He woke to find himself with a colostomy bag and prognosis of incurable colon/lung cancer.
Valentin exclaimed, "This war is cancer and the bad thing is people like us don't get benefits. The amputees qualify for the TSGLI Injury Benefits for up to $100,000 to start a new life. But because cancer is a disease and not a war wound, we don't apply." Adding, "No one even knows we're on the oncology ward. The press, celebrities and politicians go to the 3rd floor when they want publicity shots with the amputee soldiers. But what about the 7th floor-ward 71, with soldiers that are coming back with cancer?"
Effective December 2005, the Traumatic Service Members Group Life Insurance program (TSGLI), began providing financial aid to OIF or OAF soldiers returning from the war with loss of limbs, sight, hearing, burns, brain injury etc. The soldier, or family must file a claim with TSGLI and depending on the severity of the wound an insurance settlement in the amount of $25,000 to $100,000 is awarded to assist the soldier and his family through difficult financial hardships while rehabilitating. Currently, $70,000 is the average pay out.
After fourteen months of treatments and 39 rounds of chemo, it was deemed ineffective and Valentin was given 2 - 5 years life expectancy. The residual effects of the chemo canvassed his face with a spray of red bumps, and raised black ones tarred his back. A medal of honor lies under his shirt next to his colostomy bag, in the form of a 16-inch scar racing down the center rib cages to his pelvis. And yet, this young father of three's only concern is where his kids would start school in the fall. The happiness he finds when his little boy calls him on his cell phone is shown across his face. Somehow through the love and connection to his son, he's suspended in time, and if only for a few seconds, it seems everything else vanishes and he's in a perfect world of; a dad just talking to his son. He is empowered by hope and propelled forward by the love for his family. While other soldiers find him an inspiration, as he continues with more chemo and surgery.
A collage hangs on the wall of the 6th floor Oncology Ward 65, proudly amongst the staff photo's is the former President Clinton beaming for the camera. When asked how often he'd visited the soldiers stricken with cancer, the armature photographer replied, "Oh, he's been up here several times. That was taken in January 2006." For which I asked, "So then he knows soldiers are returning from Iraq with cancer?" She retorted, "Oh yes, he knows." If he knows why don't the American people?
Representitive Jim McDermott (Dem - Washington) knows the answer to that question all too well. As his office has been fielding phone calls from families across the United States since the war started. Families want to know why and how their loved ones who have served in Iraq are now gravely ill with different stages of cancer, and some have already died. They want answers. And so does he. But after repeated attempts of requesting the statistics from the DoD of how many soldiers are returning from Iraq/Afghanistan with caner, the DoD responds with, 'There are no statistics.' McDermott believes there are and the DoD is unwilling to share them.
There is a good reason for the DoD to not admit to statistics, because if they do then they would have to acknowledge that cancer is a service connected illness (war wound), and pay out a lifetime of benefits covering cancer treatments. And when active duty soldiers are stricken with cancer while in theatre or two years post deployment, they wouldn't be allowed to medically discharge soldiers because of the debilitating disease, instead they would have to grant them medical retirement with full benefits. So their decision to withhold statistics is a cost-effective one.
The Department of Veterans Affairs 2006 edition of Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents already lists DU in chapter 1 under VA Medical Programs in their Veteran's Health Registry. Certain individuals can participate in a VA health registry and receive free medical examinations, including laboratory and other diagnostic tests deemed necessary by an examining clinician. In the depleted Uranium registry; the VA maintains two registries for veterans possibly exposed to DU. The first is for veterans who served in the Gulf War, including Operation Iraqi Freedom. The second is for veterans who served elsewhere, including Bosnia and Afghanistan. The statistics are there, just not available to the soldiers or the public.
For the DoD, the long term consequences of DU are two fold: to admit the claims that inhaled or ingested DU causes cancer and is a war wound could cripple the DoD Pension & Health fiscally, thus they would lose profits and lawsuits would ensue. Secondly, the intentional use of nuclear waste to create munitions when elsewhere in the world enriching Uranium is banned. To knowingly expose soldiers, civilians and other countries to DU would constitute as a crime against humanity. And as a result we will have killed off our own military as we come full circle in our own self-induced Hiroshima.
Captain Chaplain Fran E. Stuart stricken with a rare stage IV dysgerminoma cancer, 24 months post deployment commented, "In ten years we'll have to worry that there won't be enough soldiers to fight (if there is a future war). Because the North Korean army will out number us and maybe they'll come and take us over, the way we did Iraq."
It's not the medical military staff that's responsible for this oversight with DU exposure. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center brigade of doctors, nurses, aids and staff are phenomenal and caring individuals at the crux of this conflict between soldiers and the DoD. Its carelessness and exploitation of the health of our military men and women rest on the shoulders of the war machine itself.
We will have learned nothing as a Nation if the voices of these vet's are silenced until they're old and grey or have simply faded away. Only to become more white markers in Arlington Cemetery, or another Wall of Names, their voices to be heard calling out from the grave. We'll erect another monument for them in liew of exposing the truth amidst the war and more unspoken casualties will surface far too late.
Copyright 2006, R. B. STUART All rights reserved. No reproduction of this blog in any form.