Sister Soldier: A Chronicle of Life After Iraq
In October 2010 I was contacted by a reporter for War News Radio out of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania (an award-winning production that fills the gaps in the media's coverage of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan). The student assigned a piece about depleted Uranium [DU] in Iraq and it's effect on Iraqi's and American troops, queried me as well as other specialists for an interview. Except, after three months it still hasn’t aired. Why, the reporter informed, ‘the production of the DU piece has been delayed. Reason being, is the difficulty of finding sources that want to talk about the issue….’
So much for American free speech…. Even though we’re two years away from The Bush Administration---The Patriot Act backlash and censorship erected by the former president post 9/11, continues to intercept freedom of speech reporting. In essence, the discredit of appearing unpatriotic has lacerated the psyche of the top U.S. publications of today. While the U.K. and International Press openly reports on; the U.S. military’s usage of DU in the War in Iraq, cancer amongst Iraqi civilians and military from other nations, (from inhalation and ingestion of DU dust)---our own press fearfully sidesteps.
The International Press’ daring of the U.S. military or DoD’s retribution, has allowed them to responsibly question the carcinogens of DU, and acknowledge the radiation (particulate matter)/cancer studies that have persistently surfaced since 2003. Meanwhile, the DoD buries their head in the yellow sand---as more and more U.S. soldiers are diagnosed with rare, aggressive cancers post-Iraq. The mainstream media’s incessant underreporting of the dire issue---cripples their pursuit of truth. (cancer statistics remain classified and is evident in the December 2010 Army Times article cited at the bottom).
Army Specialist Austin Monk [pictured throughout] never imagined he wouldn’t be able to complete his 12-month tour in Iraq. The Dallas, Texas native joined the Army in October 2007 at the age of 18. “My sentiments about the Army early on and now, are a sense of pride and honor in what I do and how I live on a daily basis. I love how children look up to me as a role model, especially my nephew, Damien,” the 21 year-old said December 2010 from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. “I love the Army and pray that I will someday return to full Active Duty.”
In 2007, his affection for the Dallas Cowboys, video games, and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese followed him to Ft. Leonard, Missouri for three months of Basic Training. That December, while on holiday leave Spc. Monk took a Greyhound Bus to NYC. He noticed a gorgeous brunette with high cheekbones standing in line at Philadelphia station. They snuck glances at one another unaware they would be on the same bus. “He looked so cute in his uniform. I hoped we were traveling to the same place,” recalled Laura Rose who was heading to the city to visit friends.
When Spc. Monk took his seat he observed the hazel-eyed beauty step on. “I actually moved my bags,” he remembered. She sat down next to him and struck up a conversation by asking if he wanted to use her blanket. “It was already hot on the bus and she offered me this flimsy blanket. You know the ones they give you at the airport if you apply for a credit card. I looked at her like she was crazy, and we began talking.”
“It was as if we’d known each other forever---like this “one” would change our life,” Laura reminisced. “And when we approached the city we exchanged numbers, except he claimed he didn’t know his and I thought how lame, he’s trying to pull a fast one. So I gave him mine and we went our separate ways.”
In January 2008 after completing basic training, Spc. Monk spent another two months in advanced training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. After three months telephoning one another Laura went to see him graduate March 2008. “It was only the second time I’d ever seen him. And that weekend we said “I love you” to each other and he proposed.” Shortly after, Spc. Monk received orders for his first Call of Duty to Korea for a one-year tour.
Eight months later, November 2008, Spc. Monk used his two-week leave to visit his 21 year-old fiancé in Philadelphia. “It was wonderful,” she exclaimed. “We spent time together and grew more as a couple.” [the couple above]
He returned to Korea, then four months later when his deployment ended the Army Spc. came home to Ft. Bragg with the 3/319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment. And within four days the young couple wed March 2009.
“After we were married, I moved to Ft. Bragg while he was at JRTC in Louisiana,” his wife informed. “Those four months together before he re-deployed were rough, we didn’t know how to be married and often fought.”
The 20 year-old Army Field Artillery Surveyor was healthy and vibrant. “My husband hadn’t been sick once in the time I’ve known him. He was physically active and in great shape,” she stated.
By late summer, Spc. Monk received new orders to re-deploy August 2009 from Pope Air Force Base, N.C. to Al Asad, Iraq. He trained for two weeks at Camp Taqaddum learning to drive ambush vehicles before settling into camp Al Asad Air Base (both camps are listed burn pit sites with S.C. law firm, Motley Rice, who are defending a class action suit of over 500 cancer stricken soldiers).
“There was a burn pit at Al Asad, but as far as I know, I had minimal exposure,” the unaware soldier mentioned. Then about a month into the deployment he complained of headaches and all over body pain. “Every time I spoke to him he was either too tired or working, so we just chalked it up to stress,” his wife Laura Monk explained.
On October 24, 2009, Spc. Monk posted a myspace message: “Had a 104.5 temperature and other stuff hurt. Come to find out, I’m not that sick, may have just caught a bug. I’m taking medication to keep my temp down and have a check up with the doctor tomorrow. I’m fine so there is no reason for you to worry. I love you lots and miss you bunches.”
“Once he developed aches and pains throughout his body they didn’t stop. The headaches turned into migraines that couldn’t be controlled. He had fevers, chills and sweats,” Laura recounted.
His Lactate Dehydrogenase [LDH] enzymes were elevated can signal a tissue break down in the body; a result of cancer, liver disease, or other infections. “He was treated with Tylenol, and when his temperature decreased, he was released with a decongestant and Motrin,” she added. “But the frequencies of his headaches, the abdominal pain, as well as the Upper Respitory Infection [URI] remained.”
The medics in theatre thought it could be Tuberculosis or Mono, but instead passed it off as the young soldiers wisdom teeth and sent him to the dentist on November 6th. Except after the appointment the symptoms persisted, the URI worsened and he developed insomnia. In two weeks; headaches, shortness of breath, loss of physical activity, diarrhea, constipation, rash, nose bleeds, fever, poor appetite, weight loss and stomach pain riddle his once healthy body.
The soldier reported a 5-10 pound weight drop, and increasing abdominal pain was affecting his breathing. By November 10th he was admitted to the ER in theatre with anemia, thrombocytopenia (low platelets) and fever. With his LDH elevated to 4,011, Spc. Monk was scheduled for medEvac to Germany.
On Veteran’s Day November 11th after a battery of tests, the doctors in Landstuhl were concerned it was Leukemia, and transferred him to a civilian hospital in Germany to confirm which type. At Homburg University Hospital [HUH] three doctors concurred the 20 year-old soldier had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia [ALL], and treatment was urgent.
“I was angry, surprised and in disbelief,” Spc. Monk grieved. “I had a fear of the future, and of the unknown.” His HUH roommate was another American soldier with ALL also stationed in Iraq at Basra.
Concerned, his wife called Landstuhl hospital. “They told me he was transferred to Homburg and gave me the number. I remember pacing the living room on hold when a nurse came to the phone and said, ‘I'm sorry, your husband has Leukemia.’” Laura confessed, “My stomach dropped. I felt like I was going to throw up. I remember collapsing to the floor and curling up into a ball in the middle of the hallway. I was scared. I felt at that very moment my world was about to end.” Adding, “My first reaction was denial. But I was more angry at myself for being mad at him for missing my birthday.”
His wife displeased at the way it was handled, and rightly so, was frantic wondering how he was coping alone in a hospital in another country. “It was unimaginable to know he was given a cancer diagnosis without anyone by his side. When we spoke by phone the floodgates opened and we cried together. I tried to console him that everything would be okay, and I’d be there soon. But my main concern was keeping him calm.”
Laura Monk commends the Army for transporting her to his bedside within four days. “I hadn’t seen him in three months. When I arrived he was sweaty, unkempt and hairy---but he was alive and hugging me. We were very emotional. Hearing him cry was the saddest weeping I’d ever encountered.”
The Monk’s unable to surmise what factor played a role in his diagnosis with a sudden, aggressive cancer. Laura reasoned, “We could ponder and cry until we figure it out, but we can’t change it, all we can do it is move forward. We may never know the answers.”
Although the language barrier was difficult, the liaisons made certain her daily hospital commute was effortless. She met several families at the Fisher House, and realized that her husband was alive, and had all his limbs, so why be distraught. “These families could be here to say goodbye to their service member and I’m crying over cancer?”
Part of his chemotherapy treatment was in stages spanning over two years; Induction, Consolidation and Maintenance. While Spc. Monk was undergoing two rounds of induction chemotherapy and one round of cranial radiation, they took long walks together and talked about their past and future. Grieving about what could have been if just one thing had been different. “We have become more appreciative of one another, expressing it every day. With the help of a social worker, we've learned how to communicate without yelling and fighting,” Laura admitted.
They decorated his room for Christmas making a wrapping paper chain that counted down the days---which changed frequently. After two and a half months in Germany and completing induction therapy, they flew by military aircraft C-17 and C-130 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center [WRAMC] in D.C. “The journey in Germany taught us that life is short and being there with the ones you love make it worthwhile. We are both appreciative for the treatment at Homburg---they saved him,” Laura said gratefully.
In February 2010, Spc. Monk received another round of chemotherapy at WRAMC but the young couples secondary concern was future children. “You anticipate your soldier going to war and pray they return safely. But you certainly don't expect them to come home mid-tour on a C-130 because they have cancer,” Laura confided. They applaud the WRAMC medical team and social worker, Stacee Springer for helping them receive a grant from the Walter Reed Society, and having the ability to freeze sperm at the Fairfax Cryobank in VA. “If I lose him, I will never be a mother to anyone-else's children,” she insisted.
Soon after, Spc. Monk requested he be transferred to North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Cancer Hospital [UNC] so they could finally be home. WRAMC accommodated him and UNC began eight rounds of consolidation chemotherapy, putting his Leukemia into remission before proceeding with a bone marrow transplant [BMT]. In November 2010, the final month of consolidation they prepared a trip to Texas to visit his mother for Thanksgiving, instead they ended up in the ER. Spc. Monk was experiencing pain in his left arm where his port was. After an ultrasound they located a blood clot in his limb. They admitted him intercepting the holiday with his mother.
Within days his doctor approved the trip, but while enroute the familiar symptoms he experienced in Germany a year before---resurfaced. When they returned from Texas he was admitted for two final rounds of chemo, but when his doctor and nurse stepped into the room, they weren’t their jovial selves. They reported the discouraging news that the Leukemia relapsed, and his BMT would be suspended. At the end of December his LDH doubled since Iraq to 8,000.
It was imperative the cancer be in remission before they move forward with a BMT, but that meant a new round of induction therapy, and locating a donor. His odds would decrease each time if a remission wasn’t successful. The January 6th 2011 bone marrow biopsy confirmed he is not in remission. His doctors ordered another round of a different drug anticipating to will force the Leukemia into remission and assist with the leg pain that developed.
Spc. Monk’s dreams are simple, and still in tact; be cancer-free, go to college, start a family, take a honeymoon, and possibly go downrange again, as he feels robbed of his Iraq deployment. Heartsick to discover his only brother in the Navy, was a fifty-percent match for the BMT, now, while awaiting remission and hopes of a transplant, he sleeps when he can, cherishes being with his family, especially their 13-week old Saint Bernard, Nanna. “I wish I could go back to the way things were pre-deployment….with the attitude I have now,” the courageous 22 year-old soldier disclosed. “Once I stopped making girls fit into my life, I found the perfect one.”
“Like the marriage vows…besides loving him, I’m happy to be caring for him,” shared the newlywed. But she’s troubled by the inability of some friends to accept the cancer and be supportive---aware that half of the diagnosis is the immense support system. “A majority of our friends have fallen away, but the ones that stuck by, we are immensely indebted to. ” She mourned, “It stings because while he was sick, all he wanted was to be with them in Iraq. They called a handful of times, but ultimately, were not the friends we thought they were.” Disheartened with his unit, with the exception of presenting him with the Army’s Accommodation Medal----haven’t contacted him.
The Warrior Transition Brigade at Ft. Bragg have been outstanding in their care and advocacy during Spc. Monk’s cancer treatments. medicine grabber, family updater Monk. There is no doubt in my mind you met Austin the time you did and were married the time you did to help him through this. I truly believe you're his angel. God won't forget about the things you two have been through and you both will be rewarded.And the support and comfort they found early on in Landstuhl with the Chaplain and Soldiers Angels was instrumental. “They’ve all been part of this journey and without their help and guidance, we would have been lost,” Laura admits. Their family, despite living in Philadelphia, California, South Carolina and Texas have visited, with assistance of Operation First Response, and Operation Hero Miles. “It shows that no matter where you are in the world, your family is never too far away.”
In the interim, one 10/10 marrow match donor was located ….but after a January 13th bone marrow biopsy it confirmed his health has improved, but without a full remission he‘ll remain on a chemotherapy pediatric protocol for the next four weeks, then another BMT will be performed.During his arduous 14 month battle….hope for remission, and their bond, remain steadfast. Laura Monk quotes Gary Allen, “No, life ain't always beautiful, but I know I'll be fine. Hey, life ain't always beautiful….but it’s a beautiful ride.”
Kaitlyn Murphy, a friend wrote, “Love is hard, long, and feels like an endless fight but you can't stop fighting. They’ll always be in my prayers. There is no doubt she met Austin at the right time to help him through this. I truly believe she’s his angel. God won’t forget the things they have been through and will be rewarded. One day they'll enjoy just being Mr. and Mrs. Monk.”
Lastly, Laura Monk stresses, “If you’re in the UNC area you could try to donate platelets, or if you sign up at the Bone Marrow Registry and are called to donate, you could save someone’s life. Even if you’re not his match, you maybe for someone else…..”
Bone Marrow GuidelinesEvidence of carcinogens in Iraq follows:
Visit marrow.org and register. Please fill out a questionnaire to determine if you meet the requirements. A FAQ’s tab answers concerns you may have.
"Iraq, Kuwait Dust May Carry Dangerous Elements"
Dec. 8, 2010
Dale Griffin and Cpt. Mark Lyles analyzed dust samples taken in Iraq and Kuwait in 2004 and found a wide range of heavy metals at rates in excess of World Health Organization maximum safe exposure guidelines:
• Arsenic at 10 parts per million: poisonous and can cause long-term health effects or death.
• Chromium at 52 parts per million: linked to lung cancer and respiratory ailments.
• Lead at 138 parts per million: can lead to headaches, nausea, muscle weakness and fatigue.
• Nickel at 562 parts per million: can lead to lung cancer, respiratory issues, birth defects and heart disorders.
• Cobalt at 10 parts per million: can lead to asthma and pneumonia.
• Strontium at 2,700 parts per million: linked to cancer.
• Tin at 8 parts per million: can cause depression, liver damage, immune system and chromosomal disorders, a shortage of red blood cells, and brain damage that can lead to anger, sleeping disorders, forgetfulness and headaches.
• Vanadium at 49 parts per million: can cause lung and eye irritation, damage to the nervous system, behavioral changes and nervousness.
• Zinc at 206 parts per million: can cause anemia and nervous system disorders.
• Manganese at 352 parts per million: linked to metabolic issues, arkinson’s disease and bronchitis.
• Barium at 463 parts per million: can cause breathing problems, heart palpitations, muscle weakness, heart and liver damage.
• Aluminum at 7,521 parts per million. Aluminum was of particular concern to Lyles and Griffin because the metal has recently been linked to “multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.”
© COPYRIGHT December 2010, R. B. STUART. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction of this Blog in any form.