Sister Soldier: A Chronicle of Life After Iraq
By R. B. STUART
As a child, Marine Staff Sergeant Ryan J. Oyster [pictured throughout] emulated his father, a Marine. Even though his biological father was in the background of his life---the adventurous youngster who had a penchant for uniforms---had his sights on the military. An outdoorsman, he was an Eagle Scout, played baseball, soccer, football, wrestled and ran cross country. Then in 1998 when he was old enough to make his own life’s choices, at 18 the Virginia native set out on a journey that would claim his body---and eventually his life.
He became a Marine and found a home stationed at the U. S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Married to his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, who without reservations proudly became a military wife and mother to their four children.
SSG. Ryan Oyster was the epitome of perfect health, a go-getter and full of life---he wanted it all and that’s how he lived, his mother Evelyn Oyster reminisced.
But five years later all that would change. In February 2003, SSG. Oyster would deploy to a place where his father never served---the battlefields of Iraq. During the initial assault he was just turning 23, his mother Evelyn Oyster recalled. “On his birthday
March 21st his battalion was pushing against the hot desert sands of Iraq. Ryan said as he drove the tool truck nicknamed the “tool bitch,” that when hearing the gun blasts, felt his birthday come in with a bang.”
SSG. Oyster was a trained “Amtrak Mechanic,” responsible for repairing the military’s 27-ton land and sea, Amphibious Assault Vehicles. In Iraq they transported hoards of courageous young men from sea to land, and also shuttled the wounded and ravaged to safety.
For four months SSG. Oyster brushed the salty sweat from his brow and trudged across the baked lands of Kuwait, Baghdad, Felusa and Kirkut. With his bravery in tact---the wind swept sand speckled his saliva and scratched at his eyes. While clusters of invisible particles from unknown origin made a home in his chest and lungs---he maintained his composure---complaining briefly about a stomach virus that most of his fellow Marines encountered.
The end of his tour finally came in June 2003, alas he was homebound to Camp Quantico in Virginia, and his adoring wife with three cackling children. Life was good as he was adjusting to a normal routine. But then 16 months later, October 2004, SSG. Oyster experienced a shortness of breath and then eventually leg swelling which brought him to Bethesda Naval Hospital who diagnosed him with one functioning lung and kidney disease. They assumed it was an old, undiagnosed pneumonia caused by the kidney disease. Only later discovering it was a pulmonary embolism caused by the kidney disease and not pneumonia which never existed. In an attempt to stave off the kidney disease and wrestle it into remission, SSG. Oyster was given a treatment of chemotherapy alternated by steroids.
Two years later they found he had a blood clotting disorder and had several major clots around his heart. SSG. Oyster saw several doctors at Bethesda Naval. “But, they would not further diagnose and biopsy his lymph nodes. They were in denial,” reported his wife Rachel Oyster. “So we went to our local hospital, Winchester Medical Center [Virginia] and they performed the original biopsy and sent the lymph node to the University of Virginia [UVA] who made the diagnosis. In May 2007 they [UVA] discovered he had Cancer. A form of Cancer they’d never seen before, nor what it was.”
Because the military minimalized SSG. Oyster’s condition the Oyster’s chose to have his medical care provided by UVA and Winchester Medical Center, which were both closer in proximity. “Bethesda Naval told us specifically that they did not believe Ryan had cancer and would not perform the biopsy. Only after Ryan received his diagnosis from the civilian hospital did they believe it, and try to convince us to transfer to Bethesda Naval for his cancer treatments,” Rachel Oyster commented.
Since the rare Germ Cell Cancer was of an “Unknown Primary Source” it was treated as stage IV. The day after the Oyster’s were informed it was stage IV he began chemotherapy. Unknowingly, by alternating each month with high doses of steroids it resulted in the tumors growing more rapidly. “During that time…because of the build-up of fluid in his chest cavity and lungs, the doctors ordered a round of radiation to help shrink the tumors in his chest. They [the tumors] were blocking his lymphatic fluid,” Rachel Oyster recounted. “Except, after only one round of chemotherapy Ryan’s body went into shock. He coded and was put on a ventilator for five weeks.”
During the four years of ongoing health issues SSG. Oyster was always very positive, “He always thought it could be worse. But once he was diagnosed with cancer he was very scared and didn’t know what to do or how to feel. That broke his spirit,” Rachel Oyster admitted.
The day after Memorial Day 2007 SSG. Oyster became so weak it sent him to the oncologists office. Without pause, they admitted him. “For the first time since Ryan had been ill he asked me to stay the night,” Rachel Oyster remembered. “Then later that night he went into cardiac arrest and stopped breathing. The nurses and doctors were able to revive him and he was put on a ventilator.”
His prognosis was bleak. With the lack of oxygen, his body was in septic shock, he was diagnosed with a MERSA infection in the good lobe of his lung, with a deadly form of pneumonia in both lungs.
His five-week stay in the CCU was smattered with complications and an emotional roller coaster for his wife and family. “Several times his heart stopped and he would be able to restart it himself within 20 seconds---they remedied it by inserting a temporary pacemaker. He received daily blood transfusions and blood plasma for the first four weeks. While simultaneously undergoing radiation to help shrink the tumors in his chest which caused fluid to build around his lungs,” recalled Rachel Oyster.
On June 28th they were able to remove the ventilator….his first word was FOOD. He was released home on July 6, 2007 with an uncertain prognosis. SSG. Oyster unable to walk by himself, needed assistance. For the administering of daily antibiotics he still had a PIC line in his arm, which was also used to feed him intravenously. Rachel Oyster stated, “I refused home health care and did it all myself. Ryan fought his way through an incredible illness to be able to come home before he died.”
In his final days....
SSG. Ryan Oyster dutifully gave the military six and a half years of his life then willfully handed it over to Cancer. On July 21, 2007 at the age of 27, he peacefully died at home in his sleep---10 weeks after his diagnosis----with those that he loved around him. SSG. Oyster’s only concern was that his wife of nine and a half years and their four children be taken care of if he passed. “I thank God for him being able to come home and see his children before he left this world,” Rachel Oyster mourned. As the eldest, he leaves behind five siblings and both his parents. He is buried at a cemetery near his home…close enough for them to visit often…sharing with him their endless love and devotion, and a spray of pink roses---he and his wife’s favorite. As father, husband, son and brother, his spirit has woven itself through their hearts.
In hindsight Rachel Oyster said they were led to believe it was just ‘one of those things.’ “But right after Ryan passed I started reading all these stories about sick soldiers and some of their stories were exactly like his. I certain, as well as his doctors, both civilian and military, that Ryan endured exposure to depleted Uranium. Because when he was in Iraq he was responsible for handling the destruction of vehicles if they could not be repaired.” She concludes, “I believe Ryan’s body was sensitive to the depleted Uranium dust that was in the air and that’s how and why he became sick. The DU first attacked his respitory system, lungs, kidneys and progressed to Cancer.”
When she approached his former doctor at Winchester Medical Center with her DU findings---he obliged her by reviewing it. So disturbed by what he learned, Dr. Nicholas Gemma provided Rachel Oyster with a statement for the VA verifying that his Cancer was DU related. Even though it’s after the fact…it is a victory for her. Now to make the military admit her late husbands Cancer was a war wound will be her next challenge.
His mother reflects, “The number 21 is bittersweet for us. It was a number significant to his life; he was born on the 21st, married December 21st, and died July 21st. I believe God gives us signs that he has our loved ones. If I didn’t have God---I wouldn’t have been able to get through his death. He did a lot and accomplished much in his brief 27 years. He loved life, and had very strong faith…people like him just don’t die.” Candidly adding, “I am very sad for my loss….you never accept it---you just learn to live with it.”
----AP National Writer, Sharon Cohen
June 27, 2009
“Did Toxic Chemical in Iraq Cause GIs' Illnesses?”
EXCERPT: This isn't the first claim that toxins have harmed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; there have been allegations involving lead, depleted Uranium and sarin gas. It's the same chemical linked to poisonings in California in a case made famous in the movie "Erin Brockovich." Hexavalent chromium — a toxic component of sodium dichromate — can cause severe liver and kidney damage and studies have linked it to leukemia as well as bone, stomach, brain and other cancers, according to an expert who provided a deposition for the civilian workers.
The chemical "is one of the most potent carcinogens know to man" and it can "enter every cell of the body and potentially produce widespread injury to every major organ in the body," said Max Costa, chairman of New York University's Department of Environmental Medicine.
KBR, however, says studies show only that industrial workers exposed to the chemical for more than two years have an increased risk of cancer — and in this case, soldiers were at the plant just days or months.
The company also notes air quality studies concluded the Indiana Guard soldiers were not exposed to high levels of hexavalent chromium. But Costa says those tests were done when the wind was not blowing.
Both soldiers and former workers say there were days when strong gusts kicked up ripped-open bags of the chemical, creating a yellow-orange haze that coated everything from their hair to their boots.
"I was spitting blood and I was not the only one doing that," recalls Danny Langford, who worked for the KBR subsidiary. "The wind was blowing 30, 40 miles an hour. You could just hardly see where you were going. I pulled my shirt over my nose and there would be blood on it. I also saw the soldiers. They had blood splotches on their masks."
---CNN, Adam Levine
June 25, 2009
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Copyright July 2009, R. B. STUART, All rights reserved. No reproduction of this blog in any form.