by Carla McClain
The Arizona Daily Star - August 26, 2007
After serving in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago - and
receiving the Bronze Star for it - the Tucson soldier
was called back to active duty in Iraq.
While there, he awoke one morning with a sore throat.
Eighteen months later, Army Sgt. James Lauderdale was
dead, of a bizarrely aggressive cancer rarely seen by
the doctors who tried to treat it.
As a result, his stunned and heartbroken family has
joined growing ranks of sickened and dying Iraq war
vets and their families who believe exposures to toxic
poisons in the war zone are behind their illnesses -
mostly cancers, striking the young, taking them down
with alarming speed.
The number of these cancers remains undisclosed, with
military officials citing patient privacy issues, as
well as lack of evidence the cases are linked to
conditions in the war zone. The U.S. Congress has
ordered a probe of suspect toxins and may soon begin
widespread testing of our armed forces.
"He got so sick, so fast"
Jim Lauderdale was 58 when his National Guard unit was
deployed to the Iraq-Kuwait border, where he helped
transport arriving soldiers and Marines into combat
He was a strong man, say relatives, who can't remember
him ever missing a day of work for illness. And he
developed a cancer of the mouth, which overwhelmingly
strikes smokers, drinkers and tobacco chewers. He was
none of those.
"Jim's doctors didn't know why he would get this kind
of cancer - they had no answers for us," said his wife,
"He got so sick, so fast. We really think it had to be
something he was exposed to over there. So many of the
soldiers we met with cancer at Walter Reed (Army
Medical Center) complained about the polluted air they
lived in, the brown water they had to use, the dust
they breathed from exploded munitions. It was very
As a mining engineer, Lauderdale knew exactly what it
meant when he saw the thick black smoke pouring nonstop
out of the smokestacks that line the Iraq/Kuwait border
area where he was stationed for three months in 2005.
"He wrote to me that everyone was complaining about
their stinging eyes and sore throats and headaches,"
Dixie said. "For Jim to say something like that, to
complain, was very unusual.
"One of the mothers on the cancer ward had pictures of
her son bathing in the brown water," she said. "He died
of kidney cancer."
Stationed in roughly the same area as Lauderdale, yet
another soldier - now fighting terminal colon cancer -
described the scene there, of oil refineries, a cement
factory, a chlorine factory and a sulfuric acid
factory, all spewing unfiltered and uncontrolled
substances into the air.
"One day, we were walking toward the port and they had
sulfuric acid exploding out of the stacks. We were
covered with it, everything was burning on us, and we
had to turn around and get to the medics," said Army
Staff Sgt. Frank Valentin, 35.
Not long after, he developed intense rectal pain, which
doctors told him for months was hemorrhoids. Finally
diagnosed with aggressive colorectal cancer - requiring
extensive surgery, resulting in a colostomy bag - he
was given fewer than two years to live by his Walter
He is now a couple of months past that death sentence,
but his chemo drugs are starting to fail, and the
cancer is eating into his liver and lungs. He spends
his days with his wife and three children at their
"I don't know how much time I have," he said.
Suspect: depleted uranium
None of these soldiers know for sure what's killing
them. But they suspect it's a cascade of multiple toxic
exposures, coupled with the intense stress of daily
life in a war zone weakening their immune systems.
"There's so much pollution from so many sources, your
body can't fight what's coming at it," Valentin said.
"And you don't eat well or sleep well, ever. That
weakens you, too. There's no chance to gather your
strength. These are kids 19, 20 and 21 getting all
kinds of cancers. The Walter Reed cancer ward is packed
full with them."
The prime suspect in all this, in the minds of many
victims - and some scientists - is what's known as
depleted uranium - the radioactive chemical prized by
the military for its ability to penetrate armored
vehicles. When munitions explode, the substance hits
the air as fine dust, easily inhaled.
Last month, the Iraqi environment minister blamed the
tons of the chemical dropped during the war's "shock
and awe" campaign for a surge of cancer cases across
However, the Pentagon and U.S. State Department
strongly deny this, citing four studies, including one
by the World Health Organization, that found levels in
war zones not harmful to civilians or soldiers. A U.N.
Environmental Program study concurs, but only if spent
munitions are cleared away.
Returning solders have said that isn't happening.
"When tanks exploded, I would handle those tanks, and
there was DU everywhere," said Valentin. "This is a big
The fierce Iraq winds carry desert sand and dust for
miles, said Dixie Lauderdale, who suspects her husband
was exposed to at least some depleted uranium. Many
vets from the Gulf War blame the chemical used in that
conflict for their Gulf War syndrome illnesses.
Congress orders study
As the controversy rages, Congress has ordered a
comprehensive independent study, due in October, of the
health effects of depleted uranium exposure on U.S.
soldiers and their children. And a "DU bill" - ordering
all members of the U.S. military exposed to it be
identified and tested - is working its way through
"Basically, we want to get ahead of this curve, and not
go through the years of painful denial we went through
with Agent Orange that was the legacy of Vietnam," said
Rep. Raテコl Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-sponsor of the bill.
"We want an independent agency to do independent
testing of our soldiers, and find out what's really
going on. These incidents of cancer and illness that
all of us are hearing about back in our districts are
not just anecdotal - there is a pattern here. And yes,
I do suspect DU may be at the bottom of it."
What's happening today - growing numbers of sickened
soldiers who say they were exposed to it amid firm
denials of harm from military brass - almost mirrors
the early stages of the Agent Orange aftermath. It took
the U.S. military almost two decades to admit the
powerful chemical defoliant killed and disabled U.S.
troops in the jungles of Vietnam, and to begin
compensating them for it.
Whatever it was that struck Jim Lauderdale did a
terrifying job of it.
Sent to Walter Reed with oral cancer in April 2005, he
underwent his first extensive and disfiguring surgery,
removing half his tongue to get to tumors in the mouth
and throat. A second surgery followed a month later to
clear out more of those areas.
Five months later, another surgery removed a new neck
tumor. Then came heavy chemotherapy and radiation.
Shortly after, he had a massive heart attack,
undergoing another surgery to place stents in his
arteries. Two weeks later, the cancer was back and
growing rapidly, forcing a fourth surgery in January
By this time, much of his neck and shoulder tissue was
gone, and doctors tried to reconstruct a tongue, using
tissue from his wrist. He couldn't swallow, so was fed
through a tube into his stomach.
Just weeks later, four external tumors appeared on his
neck - "literally overnight," his wife said.
Suffering severe complications from the chemo drugs,
Lauderdale endured 39 radiation treatments, waking up
one night bleeding profusely through his burned skin.
The day after his radiation ended, new external tumors
erupted at the edge of the radiation field,
flabbergasting his doctors.
"As this aggressive disease grew though chemoradiation,
it was determined at this point there was no chance for
cure," his oncologist wrote then.
By then, the cancer had spread to his lungs and spine
and, most frightening of all, "hundreds and thousands"
of tumors were erupting all over his upper body, his
"The doctors said they'd never seen anything like it -
that this happens in only 1 percent of cases," she
Efforts to contact his doctors at Walter Reed were
unsuccessful, but a leading head-and-neck cancer
specialist at the Arizona Cancer Center reviewed the
course of Lauderdale's disease.
"This a a very wrenching case," said Dr. Harinder
Garewal. "This is unusually aggressive behavior for an
oral cancer. I would agree it happens in only 1 percent
When oral cancer occurs in nonsmokers and non-drinkers,
it tends to be more aggressive, he said.
"My feeling is the immune system for some reason can't
handle the cancer," he said.
Jim Lauderdale died on July 14, 2006, and was buried in
Arlington National Cemetery.
Dixie and their two grown children still feel the raw
grief of loss, but not anger, she said.
"But I am convinced something very wrong is happening
over there. Is anyone paying attention to this? Is the
cancer ward still full?" she asked. "I would hate to
see another whole generation affected like this, but
I'm very afraid it will be."
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