"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 areas.
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, Dixie.
"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 toxic."
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.
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 Reed physicians.
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 Florida home.
"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.