Sister Soldier: A Chronicle of Life After Iraq
By R. B. STUART
Recently, the Chaplains at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in DC who houses 800 ill and recovering soldiers at a time, has begun weekly tributes at their mass formations for soldiers who have died at WRAMC. Honoring the fallen soldiers---they read their BIO and cause of death. In the last three weeks they have saluted three soldiers who have died at WRAMC from Cancer. No one questions this. Not Congress, not our elected officials, not the brigade of medical staff who care for these soldiers returning from the war torn country of Iraq.
Some soldiers feel the DoD would rather these soldiers die silently of Cancer---then pay costly medical treatment for soldiers deemed non-deployable. To acknowledge this as a war wound---the military must also assume financial responsibility for these ill soldiers. And why shouldn’t they. They were good enough to send to battle when they were healthy. But now that a percentage are returning with Stage II, III and IV Cancers---and some dying. It’s more cost effective for the military to turn a blind eye long enough for them to die. Their Cancers unrecognized as a casualty of war.
They own you once you become part of the military. And it’s their prerogative to treat these courageous men and women as guinea pigs---exposing them to depleted Uranium and contaminants at wartime. Maybe so, but not to inform the soldiers of the toxic environment in which they live, bleed and fight. Is callous, inhumane, and against the credo of a warrior. And then to abandon them in their darkest hour because their wound is Cancer and not shrapnel---is soulless. This is the new plight for the 21st century’s unknown soldier….
In January 2005, 33 year-old Army Specialist Gregory Anton left for Iraq in perfect health. His horrors wouldn’t begin until his tour ended. [pictured throughout] SPC Anton’s journey began at Camp Shelby, Mississippi with 20 other soldiers in his Unit. When the 14 year National Guard active duty E-4 soldier walked onto the bus in the still hours of that January morn. His Army Combat Uniform would take him to the desert of Kuwait.
The route transported them to an aircraft awaiting their arrival at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. Like contraband being delivered in the dark of the night, the bus drove onto the tarmac and the bleary eyed soldiers transferred their weapons and bags for a trip to the battle zones of the Middle East.
With an eight-hour layover in the Dallas Fort Worth airport, the soldiers milled around the USO lounge---the Army uniform masked the fear painting their faces of what lay ahead. It was there that SPC Anton met a Staff Sergeant from Manhattan. He was returning to Iraq after two weeks R&R. SPC Anton recalled, “He told me of how he had lost his Commanding Officer days before he left for home. A sniper killed him. He said after having only been in the country for seven months, 24 of his own died from several roadside bomb encounters.” The uncertainty of the soldiers lives are reduced to a shell game played by the hands of God.
With their courage in tact, the 21 soldiers boarded another plane for nearly a ten hour flight to Budapest, Hungary where they refueled and changed flight crews. The final leg of their journey would be the sandbox of Kuwait.
Arriving Kuwait International airport in the early evening they shuttled to Camp Doha. After a grueling trip the bus ride was quiet. From Camp Doha the soldiers went on to Camp Buehring, where they were instructed to close the curtains on the bus for safety. “We had a police escort all the way. The police blocked exit and entrance ramps on the interstate. No civilian vehicles were allowed anywhere near our buses,” SPC Anton remembered.
Their 49-hour transition into the battle zone finally ended in a late night arrival to Camp Buehring. “As we flew in to Buehring you couldn’t see anything. It was complete darkness---no lights of any kind. We unloaded the helicopter and proceeded to our bunks. It seemed they were not ready for us. We stacked 30 people into a 20 man tent.” SPC Anton described the first hours of the soldiers banding together. “As we sat talking about our mission the look on the younger soldier’s faces were grim. It seemed it had just “hit home” to where they were.”
The father of four recollected the days seemed to run together. “Up early, eat chow, a full day of missions, and then back to the Forward Observing Base. On one occasion I was listening to music with my headphones when I heard a loud screaming noise, then an explosion. It was the high pitched whistling of rocket fire coming in from the East. After that night it continued. Day after day we took mortar after mortar and rocket after rocket---encountering numerous roadside bombs as well.”
Six months later, in June 2005, SPC Anton was heading home for two weeks leave. Excited to see his family, and be able to relax, eat real food, drink Cokes, and wear civilian clothes. He shared, “I saw my Mom while I was home. She said she wasn’t feeling well. I told her all would be okay. She did not want me to go to Iraq and was worried something would happen. I tried my best to bring comfort to her concerns.”
He returned to Iraq two weeks later and upon arrival was moved to a different Platoon. “We were outside the wire every day---encountering mission after mission.” After being back in Theater for nine days, SPC Anton received a Red Cross message. His mother was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. They gave her five days to live. He left two days later. Boarding a helicopter, to a plane, he made the flight home once again. Except when he arrived to Washington, D.C. his flight was canceled.
“I was distraught because I needed to get home. I had to see my Mom one more time. I called home and told them of my delay, my trying to get home was intercepted. I caught a flight the next morning. This was day five of five. I was nervous and scared. How would I react when I saw my mother?” he reflected.
SPC Anton landed in Memphis where a family member met him. First taking him home for a shower and change. “As we pulled into the driveway there was an eerie silence. Then the words I never wanted to hear, ‘Your mother passed early this morning.’ I was devastated. I was one day late. If only my flight had not been canceled I could’ve seen her one more time.”
Two weeks later back in Iraq, SPC Anton was not in a good place physically and emotionally. “I was depressed. Returning to a war zone after burying my mother.” Then around August 2005 SPC. Anton started feeling ill. “I had pains in my abdomen. Every day I had an upset stomach, becoming dehydrated once a week. My Commander told me I was just saying this because of my situation with my mother, accusing me of faking it.”
One day while outside doing sit-ups, he noticed a slight bulged on the bottom right side of his stomach. “I went to sick call again. Although the pain was still there, the doctor told me it was a pulled muscle from working out and dismissed me. After eating I urgently needed to go to the latrine. It got to the point where I would eat only small amounts of food maybe once or twice a day. This continued up until we left Iraq.”
By January 2006 SPC Anton returned to the U. S. and decided to stay at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to train soldiers who were going overseas. “It was a great opportunity for me to give them insight to a place they were headed and I just left.
Eight months after his initial medical complaint, at the end of April 2006 SPC Anton went back to the doctor. The pain and sickness intensified. “I saw the doctor and she told me it was either my gall bladder or my appendix. She gave me medicine and told me to go home and if it worsened to return the next day. That night I became nauseous. As I kneeled over the toilet vomiting, I saw blood. The next morning I returned to the doctor. Explaining what happened she sent me to the Emergency Room to meet a surgeon. He reiterated what the other doctor said, ‘It is your gall bladder or your appendix. You are 34 years-old so you are too young for Cancer. We are going to do some tests and see which one it is.’”
As he woke from the anesthesia, the doctor walked in the room with his head hanging. “When he looked at me I knew right then…still looking at the floor he uttered these words, ‘We found you have Colon Cancer. We have to do surgery tomorrow.’ First I said and expletive. But never thought I was going to die---I wasn’t fazed by the diagnosis. Having spent everyday for a year fighting for my life in Iraq---I wasn’t bothered by what he said.”
The next morning his doctor entered the room attempting to explain the procedure SPC Anton would undergo, but he stopped him. “I didn’t want to know. I wasn’t scared but I didn’t want to hear it. I told him, pretend as if we were going on a trip---you’ll drive and I’ll sleep the entire way. I do not care how we get there…just get there.”
After the surgery SPC Anton woke in a room laden with doctors. Standing around in white coats, some pressed up against the wall discussing his well being. His surgeon cleared the room to talk to him. “He explained that the mass they removed was a Stage 3 and not even one year old. Adding, if I’d waited another month, I would have been dead.” SPC Anton recuperated in the hospital for two weeks and then was released back to Camp Shelby, where he stayed in a hotel room for three more weeks before discharged for home.
In July 2006 he returned to Horn Lake, Mississippi to receive 26 rounds of chemotherapy treatment under his Tri-Care insurance. “It was 26 weeks of pure hell. During that time I had received my medical records from Iraq. I combed through them looking at all the times I went to sick call. What I found in them angered me. On the very first visit to the medic August 2005 when my stomach was hurting, the doctor had noted discretely on the side of the chart, ‘Palpable Mass lower right quadrant. EVAC TO BALAD FOR SURGERY IMMEDIATELY.’ They never disclosed this fatal information to a soul. They found the Cancer while I was in Iraq and intentionally withheld it from me,” he exclaimed.
SPC Anton has been in remission for one year. Post Iraq, this 36 year-old soldier walks with a cane and uses a handicap placard. He’s been diagnosed with Stage III Colon Cancer, PTSD, Dumping Syndrome, Chronic Bronchitis, Internal Derangement (both knees), Carpal Tunnel (both arms), Sleep Apnea, Memory Loss and Traumatic Brain Injury. He hasn’t received any assistance from his Unit, neither comfort or support, even while in the hospital at Camp Shelby. He has repeatedly requested help with filing claims, the Medical Review Board process and separating from the Military---but his pleas for help go unanswered, as his voice of Cancer is ignored and silenced.
He notes, “You don’t hear about the vast number of soldiers returning home with Cancer. You hear about the one who was killed or kidnapped. We do not receive the help we need to go on with our lives. You do not see us receiving medals, awards and promotions. Congress turns a blind eye and says, ‘The soldiers are not getting Cancer because of being in Iraq.’ I say we’re intentionally being overlooked. We were ALL given a clean bill of health before we went, so why are we sick now?” The military’s denial of Cancer only compounds the soldier’s feelings of abandon.
He continues, “Breathing in the daily burning of our Battalions garbage, feces and any other waste disposed of at the camp. Encountering regularly at our Forward Observing Base were the blown up and mangled vehicles sitting in the motor pool. The vacant buildings we spent countless nights in while on patrol. The houses we entered while looking for terrorists. The sleeping on the desert floor for a week while guarding a stretch of highway. The contaminated water they brought in for our showers resulted in having the showers closed down for a week. The dust and all the environmental toxins we’d breathe in when the sand storms rolled in.”
The sacrifice, the toil and dedication these soldiers commit for their country is repaid by a military system that would rather silently dispose of them through sheer neglect---discounting the quiet suffering these brave sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, undergo battling Cancer. While rejected by their Battalion brothers, and a system they’ve given their life for---only to be left alone suffocating in the political dust.
SPC Anton concludes, “Where are our Purple Hearts? Where is our financial aid for mounting bills while laid-up hooked to chemo treatments? Where are our brothers in arms when we need them? Congress needs to stop denying and admit there’s a problem. WE were given a clean bill of health before we left…and now we’re sick, and some dying from this. What about us and our families? They respond, ‘Sorry, this is Non-Combat related so you don’t qualify for insurance money.’ Congress can you hear me? Why won’t you help me?” Another military man cast from the battlefield pleads for his life….begs to be heard. This is the voice of Cancer---from an invisible Soldier---of the great US of A.
Copyright August 14, 2008, R. B. STUART. All Rights Reserved. No reproduction of this blog in any form.