By R. B. STUART
Walter Reed may boast home of warrior care; but when up against pollutants and toxins that some soldiers in the Kuwait region are exposed to--it's nearly impossible to contain the wildfire of cancer from spreading within.
Not only do US soldiers have depleted Uranium [DU] inhalation and ingestion to battle....but soldiers stationed at camps on the Kuwait/Iraq boarder are engulfed by pollutants spewing from neighboring oil refineries. Smoke stacks and contaminated brown water are the pleasures of military life for these soldiers in theatre, as they find home pitched under a tent in the desert, with brown clouds circling over head. In turn the airborne invaders find a warm, cozy nest in their bodies.... traveling deep down into their lungs, their bloodstream....and eventually their cells. Contaminating their once healthy being....with foreign invaders waiting to be born as Cancer.
Army Sergeant First Class, James H. Lauderdale Jr. (pictured) knew the hazards of war all too well, a Vietnam Veteran who earned a Bronze Star for serving in Vietnam 1968 - 1970. In 1972 with the mind of a man marred by war, Lauderdale at 25 still with a boys heart, set out to recapture his dreams of love, marriage and children by marrying a Michigan native, Dixie Powell a 25 year old RN from Tucson. They would plant roots in Arizona where Lauderdale worked as a mining engineer, spending his days in an office instructing miners where to dig. This professional couple would start a family in the Arizona desert where they raised two children, Jacob and Jayme.
Being a true patriot and loyal to his country he continued to support the military by joining the Army National Guard in 1984. He was fit and trim and was routinely followed for any side effects of Agent Orange. Even though Lauderdale was due to retire in January 2005 from the National Guard after a 21 year commitment, his life took a different turn. As the war in Iraq shifted into 3rd gear, the battle moved into year two and in October 2004 at the age of 58 he was activated. As they called him to active duty, he found himself marching back into war and beginning a three-month intensive training at Ft. Dix, NJ.
With visions of Vietnam burnt into his psyche, buried spirits still fresh in his mind---and war demons still popping up at their own will, like balloons too big for your hand to hold down, no matter how hard you try, they resurface. Still omni present, are the names of his brothers etched on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in DC…their silent cries echoing through the tears of bystanders, finally bringing their suffering home.
Lauderdale, reincarnating back into that 22 year old boy marching off to war…only now with a Bronze Star on his chest, his wife and children carried by his side on photo’s neatly folded in his pocket. He straddles two lives as he steps into the war torn world of the Unknown Soldier…too easily forgotten by the powers that be. But never far from the hearts and minds of those he leaves behind.
In January 2005 SFC Lauderdale pitched his tent at Camp Doha in Kuwait for two months then moved to Camp Arijhan [Kuwait]. Within a month he would write his wife Dixie of the oil refineries continuously burning oil, releasing clouds of brown smoke from their stacks. He knew what the pollutants meant to the air he was breathing, and what you would be exposed to. He wrote her of the brown water he washed his clothes in and bathed with. At the beginning of March he told her about his sore throat. He began having difficulties sleeping on his right side because his jaw was hurting him. Within two weeks he decided to see a medic, who would prescribe him antibiotics which had no effect on the situation. He returned to the same doctor who decided it was a tooth and suggested he see a dentist for a root canal, but that didn’t relieve the pain either. By the end of March 2005 SFC Lauderdale was already ill. The medics suggested he see a dentist outside of theatre and in Kuwait City. It was then that the dentist lifted up his tongue and found a lesion, they immediately performed a biopsy and the pathology results came back as stage II Squamous Cell cancer of the mouth floor and tongue. Lauderdale and his wife were flabbergasted that the first doctor never looked under his tongue when he initially complained of a sore throat.
SFC Lauderdale was medEvac from Kuwait to a hospital in Germany, then April 1st onto Walter Reed Army Medical Center [WRAMC] in DC. While at WRAMC a doctor said, ‘Lauderdale is in a unique group. We don’t know what would stimulate him to have that type of cancer.’ Since he wasn’t a smoker, didn’t chew tobacco and never drank, which is common in ninety-five percent of these types of cases. Another doctor added, he’d seen a young 21 year-old soldier at WRAMC who just came back from Iraq with the same type of cancer.
Dixie Lauderdale a charge nurse for nearly 23 years at The American Red Cross Blood Program, was later relieved from her position due to the medical leave she took to be with her husband in DC said, “Before Jim was activated, during the entire summer of 2004 he had a lot of dental work at the VA in Tucson, Arizona. He had no symptoms and no one observed lesions in his mouth. He was healthy and fit all his life. This came up suddenly and just devastated his body quickly.”
She added, “Jim did mention the terrible pollutants coming from the smoke stacks, and the brown water he washed his clothes in while in theatre. I read about depleted Uranium and talked with him about it but he never said anything about being exposed to it and I don't think they tested him for it. We asked the doctor’s if Agent Orange could be the cause and they said there was no way to tell. We asked if he had been exposed to something in Kuwait and again they couldn't say. They did comment frequently on how aggressive his cancer was.”
Lauderdale was at WRAMC from April to July 2005, where he underwent two surgeries. The first in April 2005 for the lesion in his throat and on his tongue, the second in May 2005 to get “clear margins” without any cancer cells.
His WRAMC Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT), confident they got all the cancer, prepared him to return home with the stipulation that in order for Lauderdale to transfer to Arizona the Community Based Health Care Organization [CBHCO], (which assists in getting the soldier home where they will continue their medical care), would need to arrange the referral to a Head/Neck Cancer specialist in Tucson as his WRAMC doctor specified.
Unfortunately, the CBHCO didn’t adhere to the doctor’s stipulation and arranged Lauderdale’s medical care with an ENT doctor. Lauderdale noticed a lump and went to see the ENT at the VA and he said, ‘It’s scar tissue, there’s nothing to worry about.’ At the end of October the Lauderdale’s contacted the ENT at WRAMC and he ordered a PET Scan and biopsy in Arizona which returned positive as a malignant lesion. Within seven weeks the cancer returned more aggressively than before spreading to his neck and jaw. The Lauderdale’s requested to be sent back to WRAMC and within a week Lauderdale was scheduled for his third surgery at WRAMC.
At the beginning of November 2005 they performed the third surgery for the lesions on his neck; a right radical neck resection. Lauderdale was recovering pretty well when the doctors told him they couldn’t get it all and he would need to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The side effects of the combination was intolerable for Lauderdale, so they tried three different types of chemo to find one that suited him.
Nearly a month later, the night of his 59th birthday, Lauderdale suffered a massive heart attack and went into cardiac arrest while in the ER. That night they performed a fourth surgery and placed three cardiac stents. Two weeks later his ENT doctor scoped his throat area only to find the cancer to be quite aggressive and scheduled a fifth surgery. The ENT wanted to do the surgery immediately but his cardiac doctor refused for he had not fully recovered from his cardiac surgery. The best recovery time he could permit before another major operation was a minimum of 30 days recovery.
So in January 2006, three days after New Years, a fifth surgery, a left and right neck partial radical resection was performed as was a tracheotomy, another skin graft and a forearm free flap removing the skin, muscle, artery and vein to reconstruct a tongue, and a skin graft on his thigh to re-cover his arm. The grueling 17 hour surgery left a twelve-inch scar trailing down his right side and wrapping around his double-sided sunken neck.
Lauderdale remained at WRAMC till the end of January when they decided a sixth surgery to insert a feeding tube into his stomach in preparation for commencement of chemo and radiation. On January 29, 2006 before the chemo had begun, overnight four cutaneous lesions appeared on his right exterior jaw line. The doctors said to Dixie, ‘The cancer is growing outside of his skin, this is not good. I’ve only seen this in one percent of these cases. We can’t let him recover from his surgery, he has to begin the chemo and radiation immediately.’
The chemo started as did numerous complications. Even still, with another complication rising at the end of March….Lauderdale still believed he would be healed, even though the chemo was wretched, he never gave up. The doctors realized they couldn’t combine it with the radiation and discontinued it. Lauderdale possessed unbelievable strength and courage, he persevered with hope and faith he would recover….after all he had a devoted wife and two adoring children, one would be wed in eight months. He already survived Vietnam; surely he’d make it through this.
Lauderdale valiantly ended his 39 rounds of radiation treatments. The doctors wanted to see what progress they made so they ordered a CT Scan. Much to their bewilderment it showed that the cancer had spread to his lungs, ribs, and spinal column. Another skin lesion appeared on the right side of his neck at the edge of the radiation field. That told the doctors that his cancer was systemic, throughout his system. They advised Dixie to seek hospice care, get their personal things in order and go home and get Jim retired.
By then, Lauderdales' frequent way of communicating was writing on a whiteboard, as he had done before when he had a trach. “When the doctor told him he had six months to live, I don’t think he believed it. He still asked for more treatment,” Dixie choked. “He tried to get stronger and the doctor said, ‘Well you could try more chemo and die from a heart attack, or you could die from the cancer…it’s your choice,’ ” she wept.
The third and final round of chemo in June resulted in another complication. They had been staying at WRAMC Fisher House for military families undergoing medical care when he was re-admitted back to WRAMC. “The weekends were the worst,” Dixie mourned. “Over 4th of July weekend skin lesions multiplied canvassing his neck, back and chest.” Adding, “There were hundreds, thousands of lesions circling the upper part of his entire body.” Dixie asked the doctors, “What could it be to make this so aggressive?” The doctors said, ‘They’d never seen it so aggressive and were as dumbfounded as she.’
For the next 10 days Lauderdale was confused and obviously uncomfortable and he began pulling his I.V.’s out and getting out of bed. “His neck and throat was so swollen, I pleaded with his doctors to make him more comfortable,” Dixie said. So they increased his pain medicine, “It was the first time I had seen him laying still, resting. So I went back to the Fisher House.”
“The next morning I returned to the hospital at the usual time 5:00 am, only to see his room door closed,” she explained. In silence, her throat frozen with emotion, her voice cracked as she continued, “I knew when I saw the door closed something had happened and the nurses asked if I had gotten a phone call, and I did not. They said he passed away at 4:55 am, five minutes before I arrived.” A high pitch of tears pushed forth her last sentence, “So I guess he was comfortable….he slipped away in peace, remaining in the same position I left him in the night before.”
Later, another patient a Lt. Col., approached her and said, “Jim said he knew where he was going, and he’d be okay, but please pray for Dixie.” His message would suck her further into a vortex of pain and sorrow, as she would never rest her eyes on her beloved husbands face again.
A Casualty Affairs Officer from WRAMC, SGT. H., was assigned to the Lauderdale family to prepare them for the stages of losing a military loved one. He advised the family to expect over the following days ‘a lot of people knocking at your door, from the head of the hospital, to organizations offering assistance of all types, the press, CNN, and a slew of reporters to get Jim’s story.’ The Lauderdale’s waited…one Major visited them that afternoon to send his condolences, but that was it. There was no knock, no telephone call or even letter….from anyone else, including the hospital commander.
Feeling distraught and abandoned, she packed up her family and left for home. She said, “They [the aforementioned] don’t talk to the sick soldiers…nobody wanted to hear our story. Maybe when a wounded soldier dies---but not a sick soldier, the sick soldiers don’t exist, I firmly believe that. Just because they have gotten sick and were not injured, they were still over there [in Iraq] and served their country. But it’s not the same in the military’s eyes or in the publics. If you weren’t injured over there but you became sick instead, it doesn’t seem to count in the game of war.” How many more will have to suffer?
James H. Lauderdale, Jr., 59, died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on July 14, 2006. He and his wife Dixie were married over 34 years and they have a son, Jacob, age 28 and one daughter, Jayme age 26, who without her father to walk her down the isle, was married on November 11th, Veteran’s Day.
As his last wish, SFC James H. Lauderdale Jr. was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on July 21, 2006.…..and this was his story.
Copyright 2006, R. B. Stuart, all rights reserved. No reproduction of this blog in any form.