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Veterans' Rare Cancers Raise Fears of Toxic Battlefields
WASHINGTON - In the wake of an Iraqi official last month blaming America's use of depleted uranium munitions in its 2003 "Shock and Awe" campaign for a surge in cancer there, the Defense Department is facing an October deadline for providing a comprehensive report to Congress on the health effects of such weapons.
The report is required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007, which President Bush signed into law last year.
The request for the study is an outgrowth of claims by Iraq war veterans that exposure to depleted uranium and other toxic substances there has negatively affected their health and that, therefore, their illnesses should be recognized as war-related and the treatment covered by the Veterans Administration.
Currently, the State Department's Web site says fears about adverse health effects of depleted uranium, or DU, are "unwarranted," and it lists worries about DU under a section called "identifying misinformation."
The site says the American military uses the material in ammunition "to take advantage of its unsurpassed ability to penetrate armored vehicles," and it cites four separate studies - by NATO, the Rand Corporation, the European Commission, and the World Health Organization - that found no evidence of adverse health effects from depleted uranium.
Even so, worries persist. According to Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat of Washington who pushed for the report from the Pentagon, "There are countless stories of mysterious illnesses, higher rates of serious illnesses, and even birth defects. We do not know what role, if any, DU plays in the medical tragedies in Iraq, but we must find out."
Modern wars have produced a number of specific medical complaints, ranging from "Gulf War Syndrome" - a group of immune disorders and cancers whose connection to service in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict is being studied - to the long-term effects of a defoliant, Agent Orange, for which some Vietnam veterans obtained a settlement in 1984.
While their causes can't be pinpointed definitively, some soldiers who have avoided being killed or wounded in the current Iraq conflict are returning to America to find they have debilitating illnesses or cancers that they suspect are related to battlefield conditions, whether it is the depleted uranium used in projectiles, the remains of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons, or the smoke from burning oil wells.
An Army chaplain, Captain Fran Stuart of the 101st Airborne was based in Mosul, Iraq, where "Shock and Awe" bombings occurred, for a year beginning in March 2003. In March 2006, the 40-year-old chaplain - who is this reporter's sister - was diagnosed with a rare condition only seen in teenage girls: Stage IV dysgerminoma, an ovarian germ cell cancer. She was flown from Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where doctors removed a volleyball-sized tumor from her abdomen and she faced daily battles with the side effects of an aggressive chemotherapy regimen - 35 rounds to date.
"My body isn't mine anymore. I can feel the other tumors inside of me. I look like a monster," Captain Stuart said last May as patches of her strawberry blond hair fell out.
A Bronze Star-winning Vietnam Veteran and reservist, Army Sergeant First Class James Lauderdale Jr. of Tuscon, Ariz., was activated to serve in Iraq in January 2005 and was deployed to Camps Doha and Arijhan in Kuwait, where oil refineries released clouds of brown smoke from their stacks.
"I knew what the pollutants in the air meant, and what I would be exposed to - as well as the brown water I bathed and washed my clothes in," he told a reporter.
In March 2005, Lauderdale developed a sore throat and began having difficulty sleeping on his right side because his jaw hurt. After seeing two medics, one prescribed a root canal, but rather than alleviating the pain, it only worsened, he said.
At the end of the month, Lauderdale saw a dentist in Kuwait City, who lifted his tongue and found a lesion. Biopsy results came back as Stage II squamous cell cancer of the mouth floor and tongue.
On April 1, 2005, Lauderdale was sent to Walter Reed, where a doctor said, "The sergeant is in a unique group. We don't know what would stimulate him to have this type of cancer since he isn't a smoker." Another doctor added, "I saw a 21-year-old here who just came back from Iraq with the same type of cancer."
When his family asked if the cause could have been something Lauderdale was exposed to in Kuwait - the air pollutants, contaminated brown water, or depleted uranium, for which he was never tested - the doctors said they couldn't be certain of the cause, family members said.
By June 2006, the cancer had spread to his neck and jaw, lungs, ribs, and spinal column, and Lauderdale had undergone five surgeries, including a tongue reconstruction, right and left radical neck resections and a tracheotomy, two rounds of chemo, and 39 rounds of radiation. Within a month, "hundreds and thousands of lesions appeared, canvassing the entire part of his upper body," his wife of 34 years, Dixie Lauderdale, said. The doctors were dumbfounded by how aggressive his cancer was, she added.
After a valiant fight, Lauderdale, 59, died at Walter Reed on July 14, 2006. His final wish was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
In April 2005, Army Sergeant Charles Lewis, who saw combat in Iraq with the 101st Airborne, was diagnosed with Stage II testicular cancer.
"There was no family history. We asked the doctors if being in Iraq had anything to do with it, but most weren't sure," he said. "We had been told to contact the VA to see if there were any other soldiers returning with cancer, but they would not give us any information.
"Four different people we know and who have been in combat with me have either had tumors removed or have been tested for cancer," Sergeant Lewis continued. "So we have often questioned if Iraq or vaccinations could have played a part in this cancer."
Army Sergeant First Class Charles Frenzel has served in the military for more than 30 years; during the last four years, he has been stationed at Forts Jackson and Lee in America and at Camp Caldwell in Iraq. While he was on assignment in Iraq in October 2005, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and evacuated to Walter Reed, where an 8.5-by-4.5-inch nonmalignant meningioma was removed.
Asked what he thought had caused his tumor, Sergeant Frenzel offered several possibilities. "I think Saddam had a lot more advanced chemical programs than what was originally suspected," he said. "I was exposed to daily oil smog. Iraq burns straight nonprocessed crude oil, and the smog was horrific. The water was contaminated, and we were bathing and washing our clothes in it."
In June 2006, while undergoing a chemo treatment on Ward 65 at Walter Reed, Captain Stuart met Army Staff Sergeant Frank Valentin of the Transportation Battalion, a 34-year-old Brooklyn native who had been based at Camp Spearhead in the port of Kuwait City on the Iraq-Kuwait border for two years.
Situated amid two oil refineries, a cement factory, a chlorine factory, and a sulfuric acid factory, Sergeant Valentin and other soldiers who assisted at the camp knew immediately that their bouts of burning eyes, hot, red facial skin, and unrelentingly runny noses were caused by a cesspool of noxious fumes, he said.
The soldiers tried complaining, Sergeant Valentin said, "but nobody wanted to hear it - we just stayed quiet. They just wanted us to do our job."
Sergeant Valentin was diagnosed with hemorrhoids eight times and sent back to work, but when the pain and discomfort did not abate, he instinctively knew something was wrong, he said. Finally, a reservist who was an oncologist diagnosed Sergeant Valentin with colon cancer.
The reservist oncologist told him that there were six other soldiers with newly found cancers in his unit, Sergeant Valentin said. The sergeant said he personally knew of two that had been diagnosed with cancer: one with leukemia and one with Hodgkin's lymphoma. And a third had had a nonmalignant brain tumor.
"Between the chemicals in the air overseas, the shots they give you, and not eating well or sleeping more than four hours a day ... your body just isn't strong enough to fight anything off.
"Right now, it's cancer, cancer, cancer. A lot of these kids, 21 years old, are coming back with cancer. How did they get it? How did it happen to me when I was healthy?" he asked.
In 2005, Sergeant Valentin underwent surgery at Walter Reed. It was during that surgery that the doctors discovered the cancer had advanced. He woke to find himself with a colostomy bag and prognosis of incurable colon and lung cancer.
In contrast to soldiers who have lost limbs to explosive devices in Iraq, who qualify for Traumatic Servicemembers Group Life Insurance injury benefits of up to $100,000, "people like us don't get benefits," Sergeant Valentin said.
"Because cancer is a disease and not a war wound, we don't qualify. No one even knows we're on the oncology ward. The press, celebrities, and politicians go to the third floor when they want publicity shots with the amputee soldiers. But what about the seventh floor, Ward 71, with soldiers that are coming back with cancer?" he asked.
On July 23, Iraq's environment minister blamed "at least 350 sites in Iraq being contaminated during bombing" with depleted uranium weapons for about 140,000 cases of cancer there and for between 7,000 and 8,000 new cases each year.
A U.N. Environment Program report states that depleted uranium poses little threat if spent munitions are cleared from the ground. However, no major clean-up or public awareness campaigns have been reported in Iraq, the report added.
© 2007 The New York Sun