US sailors face grim diagnoses after Fukushima mission — Courthouse News Service

” (CN) – To serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, you must meet certain health and fitness requirements: you must be fit to serve. But a healthy group of young service men and women – many in their 20s – have come down with serious health problems since serving on a humanitarian mission to Fukushima, Japan, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to a nuclear meltdown of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TepCo) nuclear power plant.

Service members have faced cancer, brain tumors, birth defects, and other rare health problems since being exposed to radiation from the Fukushima plant. Some have even died.

Courthouse News talked to some of these service members to find out what’s happened since they came home from Fukushima and why they believe TepCo needs to take responsibility.

“It was a gray smoke that surrounded you, and you didn’t even know what it was”

Naval officer Angel Torres, 47, said he knew his mission to South Korea would be redirected to Fukushima as soon as the earthquake hit. He was aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, the first aircraft carrier deployed by the United States to Fukushima as part of humanitarian mission Operation Tomodachi to render aid and supplies to the Japanese people.

He said when the ship arrived he got “an eerie feeling.”

“It was like a cloud I’ve never seen, a gray smoke that surrounded you and you didn’t even know what it was,” Torres said.

Torres said once Navy personnel realized they’d directed the aircraft carrier straight through a radiation plume, there was confusion and a sense of panic. People bought up all the Gatorade and water at the ship store in fear there wouldn’t be water available.

He said they had to drive back through the plume a second time to render aid, and were issued gas masks to wear.

Helicopters which took supplies to people on land “were completely contaminated,” Torres said. Helicopter pilots and personnel were required to throw out their clothes, scrub down and get tested for radiation.

“We all volunteered to join and sometimes you have to do dangerous things, and this was one of them,” Torres said.

“It was our turn.”

The naval officer said commanders told the service members the amount of radiation they were exposed to was negligible, similar to flying in an airplane or eating a banana. Torres said the executive officer of the ship even told the crew they would be fine unless they licked the flight deck.

“That did well to pacify and stabilize the sentiment and general feeling throughout the ship, but I don’t know that I agree with that one bit, because I’ve eaten a lot of bananas,” Torres said.

Twenty-six-year-old Marine Corps veteran Nathan Piekutowski was in Malaysia on a rest stop when his crew on the USS Essexx got word of the tsunami and headed toward Fukushima. He was part of a team that landed to deliver food and supplies, and they wore biological chemical suits.

“Some areas were completely destroyed, it looked like a wall had smashed everything and a hand drew everything back out to sea,” Piekutowski said.

Piekutowski said crew members were also required to take iodine pills to help mitigate radiation exposure and potential thyroid impacts. They closed up all the windows and hatches on the ship as well.

Radiation impacts on sailors’ health

Piekutowski left the Marine Corps shortly after his service in Fukushima. He began exhibiting extreme weight loss and limb swelling months later, in November 2012. He experienced eyesight loss and vomited stomach acid before going to the emergency room on Christmas Day.

He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 21.

“The type of leukemia I had usually is something you get later in life. Early onset can be caused from being around certain types of chemicals,” Piekutowski said.

The following days and months included chemotherapy treatments, but after his leukemia came back less than six months into remission, the Marine received a stem cell transplant. He’s since faced day-long doctor appointments with specialists which require him to take time off work and travel out of town.

Piekutowski disputes TepCo’s contention the service members who’ve faced cancer and other health problems since returning from Fukushima were predisposed to those conditions. The utility claims their health problems are not from the radiation exposure.

“If that were the case, TepCo would have disseminated all the information it should have,” Piekutowski said, referring to the utility’s initial withholding of information after the nuclear meltdown.

“If we were predisposed to a genetic mutation or illness, why lie and cover things up?”

When Torres returned from Fukushima he said he felt weak and tired and didn’t feel like being intimate with his significant other, something out of the ordinary given what Torres called the “honeymoon effect” when a service member returns home from deployment.

When working out six months after coming home, Torres got a hernia which required surgery. Two years later, he had another one.

“I thought ‘oh my gosh, I’m breaking down here, what’s going on?’” Torres said.

He exhibited symptoms of multiple sclerosis and had an MRI scan, but a spinal tap last month showed Torres does not have the disease.

Torres also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he manages through therapy and volunteering with veterans organizations in Chicago.

He said he wishes TepCo would have done “the right thing” and told U.S. officials about the nuclear meltdown before sailors were exposed to radiation.

“When I would deploy to the Middle East, I had a team of sailors and I would look at their wives and children and say: ‘I’m going to make sure your mom and dad are okay. I wish someone would have done that for me,” Torres said.

“There are people that are dying from that carrier. They need to know what these people endured and help them get the help that they need.”

Seeking Justice

Torres and Piekutowski are part of a class action of over 420 sailors suing TepCo and General Electric in San Diego’s federal court. While eight of the sailor-plaintiffs have already died – most from cancer – since the first case was filed in 2012, many others have yet to experience any symptoms and want Tepco to foot the bill for medical monitoring and testing and future health care costs over their lifetime.

The class is represented by high-profile attorneys – former Sen. John Edwards and his daughter Cate Edwards with Edwards Kirby out of North Carolina, along with Charles Bonner of Bonner & Bonner in Sausalito, California, and Paul Garner of San Diego.

In a phone interview, Cate Edwards said there are 23 plaintiffs living with cancer, many of whom served in Fukushima in their early 20s and some as young as 18 years old. In addition to the group facing cancer diagnoses, many of the sailors have degenerative diseases, with some losing mobility and use of their arms and legs in addition to experiencing back problems and eyesight loss.

A 26-month-old toddler born to a sailor-father who served in Fukushima died from brain and spine cancer. Another female sailor opted to end a pregnancy after finding out the fetus had severe birth defects, Edwards said.

“Why are all these young, healthy, fit people getting cancer? Experiencing thyroid issues? It’s too strange to be a coincidence,” Edwards said.

“That just doesn’t happen absent some external cause. All of these people experienced the same thing and were exposed to radiation at Fukushima. A lot of this is just common sense.”

The class has been fighting to get their day in court and get a trial date set. They will inch toward that goal with a motion to dismiss hearing scheduled for Jan. 4. ”

by Bianca Bruno, Courthouse News Service


US sailors who ‘fell sick from Fukushima radiation’ allowed to sue Japan, nuclear plant operator — The Telegraph

” A US appeals court has ruled that hundreds of American navy personnel can pursue a compensation suit against the government of Japan and Tokyo Electric Power Co. for illnesses allegedly caused by exposure to radioactivity in the aftermath of the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled on Thursday that the 318 sailors who have so far joined the $1 billion (£787 million) class action lawsuit do not need to file their case in Japan.

Most of the plaintiffs were aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier that was dispatched to waters off north-east Japan after the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima plant. Three reactors suffered catastrophic meltdowns and released large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere after their cooling units were destroyed by a magnitude-9 earthquake and a series of tsunami.

The plaintiffs claim that they were healthy and physically fit before they were exposed to the radiation plume, with some personnel reporting the air on the flight deck tasting “metallic”.

The California-based law firm representing the plaintiffs say they have been affected by a range of complaints, ranging from leukaemia to ulcers, brain cancer, brain tumours, testicular cancer, thyroid illnesses and stomach complaints.

The suit claims that TEPCO is financially responsible for the sailors’ medial treatment because it failed to accurately inform the Japanese government of the scale of the problem.

The Japanese government, the suit alleges, also failed to inform the US that radiation leaking from the plant posed a threat to the crew of the USS Ronald Reagan and other US assets dispatched to assist in “Operation Tomodachi”, meaning “friend” in Japanese.

The case was originally filed in San Diego in 2012, but has been delayed over the question of where it should be heard. The US government has also vehemently denied that any personnel were exposed to levels of radiation that would have had an impact on their health during the Fukushima recovery mission.

Interviewed for the San Diego City Beat newspaper in February, William Zeller said: “Right now, I know I have problems but I’m afraid of actually finding out how bad they really are.”

Formerly a martial arts instructor, he now uses a breathing machine when he goes to sleep due to respiratory problems he blames on his exposure aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in 2011.

“I literally just go to work and go home now”, he said. “I don’t have the energy or pain threshold to deal with anything else”. ”

by Julian Ryall


Former Japan PM accuses Abe of lying over Fukushima pledge — The Guardian; The Denver Post

The Guardian: ” Japan’s former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has labelled the country’s current leader, Shinzo Abe, a “liar” for telling the international community that the situation at the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is under control.

Koizumi, who became one of Japan’s most popular postwar leaders during his 2001-06 premiership, has used his retirement from frontline politics to become a leading campaigner against nuclear restarts in Japan in defiance of Abe, a fellow conservative Liberal Democratic party (LDP) politician who was once regarded as his natural successor.

Abe told members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Buenos Aires in September 2013 that the situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was “under control”, shortly before Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games.

IOC officials were concerned by reports about the huge build-up of contaminated water at the Fukushima site, more than two years after the disaster forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

“When [Abe] said the situation was under control, he was lying,” Koizumi told reporters in Tokyo. “It is not under control,” he added, noting the problems the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), has experienced with a costly subterranean ice wall that is supposed to prevent groundwater from flowing into the basements of the damaged reactors, where it becomes highly contaminated.

“They keep saying they can do it, but they can’t,” Koizumi said. He went on to claim that Abe had been fooled by industry experts who claim that nuclear is the safest, cleanest and cheapest form of energy for resource-poor Japan.

“He believes what he’s being told by nuclear experts,” Koizumi said. “I believed them, too, when I was prime minister. I think Abe understands the arguments on both sides of the debate, but he has chosen to believe the pro-nuclear lobby.”

After the Fukushima crisis, Koizumi said he had “studied the process, reality and history of the introduction of nuclear power, and became ashamed of myself for believing such lies”.

Abe has pushed for the restart of Japan’s nuclear reactors, while the government says it wants nuclear to account for a fifth of Japan’s total energy mix by 2030. Just three of the country’s dozens of nuclear reactors are in operation, and two will be taken offline later this year for maintenance.

Koizumi, 74, has also thrown his support behind hundreds of US sailors and marines who claim they developed leukaemia and other serious health problems after being exposed to Fukushima radiation plumes while helping with relief operations – nicknamed Operation Tomodachi (friend) – following the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In 2012 the service personnel launched a lawsuit accusing Tepco of failing to prevent the accident and of lying about the levels of radiation from the stricken reactors, putting US personnel at risk.

Most of the 400 plaintiffs were aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was anchored off Japan’s north-east coast while helicopters flew emergency supplies to survivors of the tsunami, which killed almost 19,000 people.

Medical experts, however, said the sailors would have received only small, non-harmful doses of radiation; a US defence department report published in 2014 said no link had been established between the sailors’ health problems and their exposure to low doses of Fukushima radiation.

Koizumi, who met several of the sick servicemen in San Diego in May, plans to raise $1m by the end of next March to help cover the sailors’ medical expenses.

“I felt I had to do something to help those who worked so hard for Japan,” he said. “That won’t be enough money, but at least it will show that Japan is grateful for what they did for us.”

Despite his opposition to Abe’s pro-nuclear policies, Koizumi was complimentary about his performance as prime minister during his second time in office in the past decade.

“As far as nuclear power is concerned, we are totally at odds,” Koizumi said. “But I think he’s reflected on the mistakes he made during his first time as leader and is doing a much better job second time around.”

In political longevity terms, Abe’s performance could hardly be worse. He resigned in September 2007 after less than a year in office, following a series of ministerial scandals, a debilitating bowel condition and a disastrous performance by the LDP in upper house elections. ”

by Justin McCurry


* * *

Read a similar article by The Denver Post

‘Uncertain radiological threat’: US Navy sailors search for justice after Fukushima mission — Spiegel International; Navy sailors dying from Fukushima radiation seek justice — Info Wars

” On March 11, 2011, the American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan received orders to change course and head for the east coast of Japan, which had just been devastated by a tsunami. The Ronald Reagan had been on its way to South Korea when the order reached it and Captain Thom Burke, who was in charge of the ship along with its crew of 4,500 men and women, duly redirected his vessel. The Americans reached the Japanese coastline on March 12, just north of Sendai and remained in the region for several weeks. The mission was named Tomodachi.

The word tomodachi means “friends.” In hindsight, the choice seems like a delicate one.
Three-and-a-half years later, Master Chief Petty Officer Leticia Morales is sitting in a café in a rundown department store north of Seattle and trying to remember the name of the doctor who removed her thyroid gland 10 months ago. Her partner Tiffany is sitting next to her fishing pills out of a large box and pushing them over to Morales.

“It was something like Erikson,” Morales says. “Or maybe his first name was Eric, or Rick. Oh, I don’t know. Too many doctors.” In the last year-and-a-half, she has seen oncologists, radiologists, cardiologists, blood specialists, kidney specialists, gastrointestinal specialists, lymph node experts and metabolic specialists. “I’m now spending half the month in doctors’ offices,” she says. “This year, I’ve had more than 20 MRTs. I’ve simply lost track.”

She swallows one of the pills, takes a sip of water and smiles wryly.

It was the endocrinologist who asked her if she had been on the Ronald Reagan. During Tomodachi? Yes, Morales told her. Why?

The doctor answered that he had removed six thyroid glands in recent months from sailors who had been on that ship, Morales relates. Only then did Morales make the connection between the worst accident in the history of civilian atomic power and her own fate.

The Fukushima catastrophe changed the world. Nuclear reactors melted down on live television and twice as much radioactive material was released as during the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The disaster drove 150,000 people from their towns and villages, poisoned entire landscapes for centuries and killed hundreds of thousands of farm animals. It also led countries around the world to rethink their usage of nuclear energy. Fukushima is more than just a place-name, it is an historical event — and it would seem to have changed the life of Leticia Morales as well.

It has been a painful experience, and not just because of the poor state of her health. It has also put her into conflict with her deepest convictions. The military she serves has told her that her mission on the coast of Japan was not dangerous to her health, but she is sick all the same. Morales joined the Navy when she was 19-years-old to give her life structure and a purpose, as she says. She spent a significant chunk of her youth in homes and at foster families because her mother was not able to care for her and her siblings. She only got to know her father as a grown woman. After joining, she went to basic training in the Nevada desert and then headed out onto the water.

Nice to Be Needed

Since 2008, she has been responsible for the flight deck on board the Ronald Reagan and about 100 sailors. The ship is a floating city, one with room for 100 planes below its decks. Its home port is San Diego, California, but Morales is stationed not far from Seattle in the state of Washington. She has spent a significant portion of her life on the world’s oceans and has sailed past the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, China and Malaysia.

Usually, the crew only learns where they are headed once the ship has already cast off and headed out to sea. But the destination doesn’t often change the routine on board, one focused primarily on training exercises and ship maintenance. Indeed, the missions are primarily intended to show the world that they are there, drawing US borders through the high seas. As such, says Morales, it is particularly nice to actually be needed from time to time.

The Ronald Reagan left San Diego on Feb. 2, 2011, heading for Busan, South Korea for a scheduled stop. It was still early in the vessel’s semi-annual trip around the globe when Captain Thom Burke broke the news over the ship’s PA system that a tsunami had struck Japan. He said the ship was heading for the Japanese coast to provide humanitarian assistance.

Morales hadn’t felt anything, of course, with the open seas gliding smoothly under the ship. Furthermore, she had participated in a similar humanitarian mission after a deadly typhoon had struck the Philippines in 2008, so the diversion to Japan was nothing new for her. “It’s what we do. We help,” she says.

At first, she knew nothing about the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power facility, but says that, during the journey up the coast, she experienced a metallic taste in her mouth. Others noticed it too and Morales says the sailors even exchanged concerned glances. People exposed to radiation often complain of such a metallic taste and Morales now believes that this was the moment when they sailed through the cloud of nuclear radiation that Fukushima sent out over the Pacific.

Nothing to Regret

On the morning of March 13, the USS Ronald Reagan reached the Japanese coast and saw the unimaginable devastation for the first time, with houses, cars and debris floating in the water. There were also dead bodies.

Morales gets tears in her eyes when she remembers the suffering she saw. But it also serves to remind her that the mission was worth it, that she and her fellow soldiers did what they could to help and that she has nothing to regret.

Not long after their arrival, they learned of the explosions at Fukushima, but Captain Burke assured them that they weren’t in danger. People back home, though, were more concerned and Morales began receiving worried emails from her father. He had spent years working at a nuclear power facility and had conducted radiation experiments with dogs — beagles, she says. Her father warned her not to go up on deck, to drink only bottled water and to take potassium iodide tablets.

Still, when volunteers were being sought to help load goods onto an aid helicopter bound for the mainland, Morales joined in, as did the others in her unit. That’s what they do. They help.

They did their best not to worry about the invisible danger, but there were occasions when it couldn’t be avoided. After they had been stationed off the coast for a few days, for instance, they were suddenly told over the PA system to stop drinking tap water and stop showering. Morales also learned that her partner, who was stationed in southern Japan at the time of the tsunami, had been evacuated with her unit to Guam, an island in the middle of the Pacific located a very long way from the destroyed reactor. But the Ronald Reagan remained and the captain gave the all-clear the next day, saying that tests had come back negative. Morales continued working with her unit on deck and they forgot their concerns. “I don’t think that Captain Burke would knowingly put us in danger,” she says. “The Navy would never do such a thing. They didn’t know any better either.”

In the Defense Department report submitted later to Congress, it says that the ship had never been closer than 100 nautical miles to the coast. But that’s nonsense, Morales says. She trusts her recollections and says that they had actually operated quite close to the coastline. Only in April did they leave Japan’s east coast for Sasebo in the far southwest of the country before heading to Thailand and then to Bahrain. On July 10, 2011, they arrived home once again; it was Morales’ 32nd birthday. Two weeks later, she was promoted and her salary jumped by $400 per month.

It was summer in Washington when she arrived home and she would have largely forgotten about the mission in Japan if it hadn’t been for the pesky forms she had to fill out: How long were you outside? Where were you exactly?

She wrote: I was always on the flight deck. The whole time.

‘Uncertain Radiological Threat’

The last message she got from her ship’s captain came via Facebook. He thanked his crew for the great mission, particularly for the Japan segment. “We have the pride that comes with superbly conducting one of the most complex humanitarian relief operations in history. Not only did we work through debris fields, cold and icing conditions, but we did not waver amidst an uncertain radiological threat. (…) We overcame our fear and we did our job superbly. Tomodachi was the highlight,” he wrote. The message was posted on Sept. 8, 2011.

In May 2013, Leticia Morales suddenly began suffering dizzy spells. Her arm swelled up, her right hand looked like a baseball mitt and she had tunnel vision, she says. Doctors made computer scans of her brain and took numerous blood tests. Her general practitioner told her that there was something serious going on, but they weren’t sure what it was.

The kidney pains began around Thanksgiving, 2013. Again, the doctors didn’t know what was causing it, but they found a tumor in her liver. In January 2014, a doctor told her that the problem was focused on her spine and in February, they found a malignant growth in her thyroid gland.

Morales began doing some research and found that many of the symptoms she had been suffering matched up with those experienced by people exposed to radiation. “Some of the doctors I visited confirmed as much,” she says. “But they couldn’t confirm that I had become exposed while on board the Reagan. They couldn’t, or didn’t want to. What do I know?”

In the summer of 2014, she began experiencing cardiac arrhythmia and that autumn, they found metastases in her breast.

In the meantime, the Defense Department had presented Congress with the results of a study focusing on the Navy’s part of Operation Tomodachi. The study concluded that even those sailors who had spent the whole time on USS Ronald Reagan’s flight deck had not been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The report also found that their exposure to contaminated water during the mission did not exceed the total radiation experienced by passengers on cross-country airline flights. Furthermore, the report found, cancer caused by radioactivity develops much slower than that experienced by the ill sailors.

A Pentagon representative thanked Congress for its interest in the health of military personnel and said they had checked everything but found nothing suspicious.

Letitia Morales, meanwhile, was left with an endocrinologist whose name she couldn’t remember, her thick medical files and the stories of a couple of other comrades on the flight deck who had also fallen ill.

A Serious Case of Hepatitis

But she also learned of a class-action lawsuit being prepared by two attorneys in California. They hoped to sue Tepco, the company that operated the nuclear facility at Fukushima, in the name of the 70,000 US soldiers and sailors who had spent time near the site of the accident. Morales contacted the lawyers, but it was important to her that the lawsuit was not aimed at the Navy. She is a soldier, after all, and wanted to remain loyal. She may have lost her health, but she hadn’t lost her purpose in life.

The attorneys explained to her that it wasn’t even possible to sue the military in America due to the Feres Doctrine, a Supreme Court ruling from the 1950s. It stipulates that soldiers cannot hold the state responsible for injuries or death resulting from military service. Reassured, Morales added her name to the class-action suit.

Those from her unit who had also become ill joined as well. Some of them live not far away from her in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, a region where Leticia and Tiffany feel comfortable as a lesbian couple. Last year, they bought themselves a brand new house in a neighborhood where the streets are named after US presidents and trees. Washington is a healthy, liberal state, a place where residents can legally buy marijuana just as they can Bud Light.

Brett Bingham, one of Morales’ petty officers, lives in a brand new house of his own nearby. He has the neck of a football player, a smile like Channing Tatum, young children, several dogs and a three-car garage. The fourth is parked on the street. He donates blood twice a year.

Last year, though, shortly after making a regular donation, he received a letter from the blood bank telling him to call them immediately. They told him that he had a serious case of hepatitis and asked him if he takes drugs or otherwise might have used a contaminated needle. Bingham said no and consulted a doctor, who told him that he might be suffering from so-called “radiation hepatitis,” a radiation-induced affliction of the liver that comes and goes. They performed a second examination and then a third before declaring him healthy. Still, he was no longer allowed to donate blood.

Ron Wright, a 24-year-old who joined the Navy in 2010, lives a few streets away. The voyage to Japan was his first mission abroad on an aircraft carrier and, the way things currently look, likely his last. He remembers standing with Morales’ crew on the flight deck, the cold and the snow. But he also remembers the protective clothing they received after a few days: pants, jackets and booties to cover up their normal boots.

When they went down below decks following their shift, they would be scanned and they had to turn in the things that were deemed to be contaminated which were then burned and, Wright believes, dumped into the sea. Once, he even had to turn in his pants and, he still recalls, walk through the ship in his underwear. Everyone laughed, as did he. It seemed like a joke at the time. “They always told us that we were safe,” Wright says.

Constant Companions

One month later, his testicles swelled up to the size of tennis balls, as he describes it, and the pain was unbearable. They were still in the Sea of Japan and a doctor on board recommended that the young sailor be flown out, partially because he didn’t know what Wright was actually suffering from. Instead, he was given pain killers. And the treatment still hasn’t changed: Neurontin and Percocet are his constant companions.

“When I asked if it might have something to do with the radiation from Fukushima, a doctor told me pretty gruffly no,” Wright says. “He showed me some inquiry report from the Defense Department, but the pain didn’t stop. I have been operated on seven times, always in military hospitals. Nothing has helped. There has been no diagnosis, just the pills.”

Wright was unable to return to active service before the four years he had committed to expired. Now, he simply sits at home waiting for his next doctor’s appointment. Mostly, he spends his time sitting in the kitchen, where he can look out the window at the forest, his dog at his feet. During a recent visit, his girlfriend was sitting on the sofa in the living room staring at her smartphone.

“What are you guys talking about?” she calls over at some point.
“About my balls,” Wright says.
“Ah, okay,” she says, without looking up from her phone.

The only sailor from Morales’ unit who received a clear diagnosis is Theodore Holcomb. He had cancer of the parathyroid gland and it killed him in April of 2014. He is the first casualty of the aid mission Tomodachi.

Morales only learned from Holcomb’s ex-wife how sick her fellow soldier was after he was too sick to talk on the phone. Holcomb never did talk much, particularly not about his problems, Morales says, but he was one of her most reliable seamen. He lived a long way away in North Carolina with his wife and then, later, with a friend in Reno, Nevada where he died.

“I think he was pretty messed up at the end,” Morales says, “and I don’t just mean his health.”

They all only know each other from the ship. They live together for half a year and then they go their separate ways, to the furthest flung corners of the US. Most of them had to deal with their health problems all by themselves.

Left Without a Job

Theodore Holcomb died in the arms of his best friend Manuel Leslie. The two knew each other since the sixth grade and joined the Navy together. When Leslie got married, Holcomb was his best man and when Holcomb got married, Leslie returned the favor. Neither one of the marriages was destined to last. The Navy kills relationships, Leslie said, the women have to be alone so long.

In January 2013, Theodore Holcomb turned up at Leslie’s house on the outskirts of Reno with a suitcase. The Navy hadn’t extended his enlistment — Holcomb had served for 14 years, but a pension only kicks in after 15. He was thus left without a job and his wife and daughter lived thousands of miles away. He had no idea what to do next. Leslie, who had left the Navy in 2006, could only imagine what his friend was going through.

Holcomb moved into the guest bedroom and the two unemployed veterans lived like school boys in a never ending summer vacation. Or like retirees. They spent a lot of their time outside, often going hunting together. Slowly, Holcomb left his life on the water behind and became used to his new reality. It took at least a year before his friend began to accept that it wasn’t his fault he had been discharged, Leslie says.

And then, Holcomb got sick.

Shortly before Christmas of 2013, he suddenly had trouble breathing and the doctors told him in January that he had thymus cancer. The thymus is a gland located behind the breast bone and thymoma, as cancer of the gland is called, is extremely rare. One of the risk groups for this sort of cancer, however, includes those who have been exposed to radiation. Holcomb was 35 when he was diagnosed with cancer and chemotherapy began immediately. He lost over 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in a single month, Leslie says. Normally, thymus tumors grow slowly, but in Holcomb’s body, the cancer spread extremely quickly.

Manuel Leslie drove back and forth to the hospital and organized a spot in a palliative care center once the end was near — a nice place with a rose garden where the two ex-soldiers in their 30s could sit waiting for death. Just before he passed away, Holcomb forgave his wife, but he still didn’t want her or his daughter to visit, preferring that they remember him as a strong man rather than, as Leslie says, the scarecrow he had become. Still, he wanted the opportunity to wish his daughter a happy fifth birthday. Leslie held the phone for him.

The girl said: But my birthday isn’t for another five days, daddy.
I know, Holcomb replied.
He died that night. Manuel Leslie was sitting next to his bed.

Day in Court

He was cremated and his ashes were divvied up. His ex-wife in North Carolina received a third of them, as did his parents in California. His friend in Reno got the remaining third and he keeps the urn, a box made of cherry wood, on the mantel of his fireplace.

Leslie is sitting in the cafeteria of a department store in the desert 10 miles outside Reno. He is a short, stocky man who visited 26 countries while in the Navy, but now he is taking care of his parents, who are also suffering from cancer. The department store is dedicated to hunting and behind him are gun safes and mounted animals: antelopes, wolves and grizzly bears, but also elephants, lions and rhinos. Men and their children are standing in front of glass display cases and ogling machine guns worth $15,000.

Manuel Leslie hates the Navy, but he also loves it. It destroys lives, but it also saves them. It is both the meaning and the curse of his existence. His best friend became terminally ill because of his participation in a mission to help Japan. His grandfather was stationed on Hawaii with the Navy at age 16 when the Japanese attacked. He himself spent the best year of his life in Tokyo.

Leslie is now the executor of his friend’s will, though there are really only two things that he has to do. One is keeping in touch with Holcomb’s daughter. The other is ensuring that his friend gets his day in court. Leslie is representing his friend in the class-action lawsuit against Tepco, Toshiba, Hitachi, Ebasco and General Electric, all of which had a hand in operating or constructing the reactors at Fukushima.

The suit is being led by Paul Garner, an attorney who has already spent much of his life going after the companies for the damage they have done to the environment, for their violations of human rights or for making people sick. He is in his late 60s, is overweight and wears a sweaty red shirt. From the few hairs on his head, he has managed to create a thin braid. And he arrives to our meeting over one hour late.

He says that his old Mercedes wouldn’t start, so he had his brother Bob — a small, jumpy man in a Hawaiian shirt — give him a lift. When the brothers walk into the deserted restaurant on the outskirts of Palm Springs, they don’t look like two men preparing to file a billion-dollar liability suit.

But they were the first.

Screwing People Who Screw People

Bob Garner, who was part of Robert Kennedy’s campaign team in the 1960s and who has been working on a great American book of poetry since then, met the father of Lindsey Cooper two years ago at a gas station in the desert. Cooper had been on board the USS Ronald Reagan during its voyage to Japan and the father told Garner that his daughter had come down with a thyroid complaint and that he knew of other sailors who had likewise become sick. Bob told his brother Paul about the meeting who then told his partner Charles Bonner, who runs a small legal practice in Sausalito.

The two know each other from the civil rights scene: Garner is a Jew from New York and Bonner is a black man from Alabama. In their free time, the two old men sit on Bonner’s dock on a lake in the Californian mountains drinking wine and singing Pete Seeger songs. In their professional lives, the have sued companies like Chevron, Exxon and Shell. They were unimpressed by the report compiled on the Ronald Reagan by the Defense Department. Their motto is: We screw people who screw people.

Paul Garner sets a thick, greasy file folder on the table. After looking into the case, they contacted over 500 sailors who had become ill after the mission in Japan. Two-hundred-fifty of them answered and their stories form the backbone of the case they hope to argue before the court. Garner orders a soup and a sandwich and quotes from the dramatic stories told in his binder: The woman sailor who gave birth to a sick baby; the seaman who was told by the doctors that he had a genetic defect although his twin brother, a civilian, is completely healthy; the seaman who went completely blind after returning from Japan. There is another story of a seaman who was stationed in Japan with his family and became ill with leukemia. There is the Navy airplane mechanic who is suffering from an unexplained loss of muscle mass.

Garner runs down the list of illnesses and symptoms, a variety of different forms of cancer, internal bleeding, abscesses, tumors, removed thyroid glands, gall bladders extractions and birth defects. His brother Bob interrupts: “All that suffering, the pain. Those pigs.” As Bob Garner holds forth on the fates of the sick sailors, he quotes Martin Luther King and Marx; he talks about how Hillary Clinton was ensnared in the military-industrial complex during her term as secretary of state. He compares Vietnam with Afghanistan.

“The ship is named Reagan. Reagan himself was a spokesperson for General Electric in the 1950s. You just have to add one to one,” Bob Garner says. Will you finally shut up, his brother Paul interjects.

Moral Support

Paul Garner too wants to unmask capitalism. He too wants justice and compensation for the sailors who were aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. He wants to show just how strong the global atomic energy lobby is. He wants the trial to become a stage on which Bonner and Garner can show just how recklessly we are treating our planet.

It will be difficult to prove that their clients received unhealthy doses of radiation during the mission and became ill as a result. It may even be impossible. Lots of money will be at stake, but first of all, they have to convince a district court in San Diego that they can proceed with the lawsuit in the first place. Their first attempt was denied.

Paul Garner had asked the sick sailors to come to San Diego for an August hearing as moral support. Most, though, didn’t dare show up, not even those who live in the city. Lindsey Cooper, for example. The woman who started the whole thing was torn apart on a CNN program by atomic energy experts and was later mocked on conservative radio shows. She doesn’t want to relive the experience.

Kristian William, a helicopter pilot from Texas who flew aid goods from the Ronald Reagan to the Japanese mainland, suffers from cancer of the parathyroid gland, a rare form of cancer that is usually triggered by a high dosage of radiation. But he still doesn’t want to go public with his suffering, he says on the telephone, because he is more afraid of being misrepresented in the media than he is of the cancer itself. Even Leticia Morales, the chief of the Ronald Reagan flight deck who encouraged her fellow soldiers to join the class-action suit, stayed away from the San Diego court. She didn’t want to be photographed, she said. She is, after all, a soldier.

Coverage of the USS Ronald Reagan has been astoundingly limited. Here and there, the fate of an individual seaman makes it into the local news, but then it’s gone again without anyone connecting the various cases. The Navy says it doesn’t want to comment on an ongoing case. The Defense Department refers to the report compiled for Congress.

The sailors themselves don’t want to be both ill and humiliated. They don’t want to stand up to the Navy, their Navy, their country. The United States is a country that values its military, but it is also a country of lawyers. The soldiers have become trapped between these two fronts.

Nobody’s Left Behind

Paul Garner told them that it took 20 years before the military recognized that Agent Orange, which was used liberally in Vietnam, was harmful to health and even life threatening. Twenty years is a long time.

In the end, only a single sailor from the USS Ronald Reagan appeared before the court in San Diego: Steve Simmons. A lieutenant in the Navy, Simmons is now confined to a wheelchair. A sticker on his wheelchair reads: Nobody’s left behind.

At the beginning of June, 2014, Simmons was honorably discharged from the Navy for medical reasons at the Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. He wore his white dress uniform for the occasion and thanked the Navy for 17 great years, adding that he would have liked to remain in service for 30. Few people attended the event — just one other wheelchair-bound serviceman who Simmons had met in the hospital and Nancy, his wife, who he had met over a dating-website belonging to his church. After his discharge, he moved with her and her four children to Utah, not far from Salt Lake City. The climate there is better for him than damp Washington DC, where he used to live. They built a ramp into their new house to make it wheelchair accessible.

Simmons got up at 4 a.m. so as to be on time for the court hearing that day, flying from Salt Lake City to San Diego via Los Angeles before driving to the courthouse in a rental car. After the hearing, he was to fly back home — a round trip that cost him and his wife $700. But it is important for him. He finally wants some certainty.

Simmons’ complaints began one year after he returned from Japan. His muscles began to fail and his hair started falling out by the handful. He got migraines, experienced bloody discharges, became incontinent and his fingers turned yellow, even brown on some days. His feet are now dark red in color and he experiences whole-body spasms; his liver test results are comparable to those of an alcoholic. Four years ago, he competed in triathlons and hiked in the mountains. Now, he can no longer walk — and nobody can tell him why.

On his darkest days, Simmons finds himself leaning toward conspiracy theories — toward the notion that a diagnosis has not been provided because it would require an admission that his suffering is caused by exposure to radioactivity. That, though, would mean that the Defense Department reports were intentionally inaccurate. He says there was one doctor who told him it was better that he didn’t know what was making him ill. Early on, he was in a military hospital in Washington DC together with three other men who had similar symptoms, he says. They had served on nuclear-powered submarines, but they disappeared from one day to the next, and when he asked what happened to them, everyone acted as though they had never been there in the first place.

Ship of Ghosts

Simmons doesn’t believe that the Navy is behind it, nor does he doubt the stated motives of their mission to Japan. He has participated in two tsunami-related aid missions and says he would join a third as well, were he able to. He says he frequently met Captain Burke at senior officer meetings during the critical period of their mission off the coast of Japan and says that he seemed concerned, but not heedless.

What bothers him, he says, is how quiet Burke has now become. Simmons believes his former captain is staying silent so as not to jeopardize his career. He is now in the Pentagon and would like to become an admiral, Simmons says.

“Personal, diplomatic and economic interests are all at stake,” Simons says. “They’re leaving us alone. They’re closing their eyes, keeping quiet and waiting for it to blow over. There are sick soldiers everywhere, many in the hospital in San Diego, or in the medical center in Hawaii. They are ordinary folks who are poorly insured, with family and kids. Loyal and scattered. Most of them don’t know how to react. Those who raise their voices are denounced in the Internet for being unpatriotic. You have to put up with a lot,” Simmons says.

That is why he wanted to go to the court proceedings in San Diego. He sees himself as their representative.

When he rolled into the courtroom, he saw the lawyers from a large Los Angeles firm on one side of the room together with their teams of researchers. On the other side, he saw Paul Garner and Charles Bonner, the two civil rights veterans. In front, the judge seemed to eye Garner’s shirt and hair-do with skepticism. Simmons says he’ll never forget the self-satisfied smirks of the Tepco lawyers in their $3,000 suits.

The judge didn’t ask Simmons a single question, so he remained silent. But Paul Garner built him into his speech, using Lieutenant Simmons as the face of suffering and speaking of him as an American hero and a pioneer. With Simmons’ help, Paul Garner was able, during the 90 minutes available to him, to erase the grins from the faces of the industry lawyers from Los Angeles.
The court decision came in the mail a few weeks later. The class-action lawsuit, the court ruled on Oct. 28, may proceed. Oral arguments are scheduled to begin on Feb. 26.

The complaint is 100 pages long and contains the names of 247 sick sailors along with details pertaining to reactor construction, water samples taken, Navy tactics and Japanese politics. It assails company greed just as it does the negligence of those who built the Fukushima reactors — and goes on to censure global politics and the cynicism of humankind. A kind of Old Testament fury infuses the text, and the complaint is so sweeping that it almost loses track of its true target. The USS Ronald Reagan appears therein as humanity’s last ship. An aircraft carrier. A ship of ghosts. ”


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View another article and video on Operation Tomodachi by Komo 4 News, “Fukushima fallout suit: ‘Sailors were marinating in radioactive particles.’

Question of negligence hangs over nuclear firms in U.S. case over Fukushima fallout — The Japan Times

” Dear Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yoichi Miyazawa,

As you may be aware, a federal judge in the U.S. recently ruled that a class-action lawsuit filed by about 200 U.S. Navy sailors can proceed against Tokyo Electric Power Co. and other defendants they blame for a variety of ailments caused by radiation exposure following the nuclear reactor meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1.

The sailors allege that Tepco knowingly and negligently gave false and misleading information concerning the true condition of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to the public, including the U.S. military. They further allege that Tepco knew the sailors on board the USS Ronald Reagan would be exposed to unsafe levels of radiation because Tepco was aware three nuclear reactors at the site had already melted down.

In this connection, the lawsuit notes that on Dec. 14, 2013, Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister at the time of the disaster, told a gathering of journalists regarding the first meltdown: “People think it was March 12 but the first meltdown occurred five hours after the earthquake.”

The sailors in question were participating in Operation Tomodachi, providing humanitarian relief in response to the Japanese government’s calls for assistance. In accordance with the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, these sailors literally risked their lives to aid and protect the people of Japan.

The sailors accuse Tepco of negligence, failure to warn of the dangers, and design defects in the construction and installation of the reactors, among a total of nine claims for damages. To date, the sailors have experienced such illnesses as leukemia, ulcers, brain cancer, brain tumors, testicular cancer, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, thyroid illnesses, stomach ailments and a host of other complaints unusual in such young adults.

One of the major questions to be decided by the lawsuit is who will pay for the military members’ ongoing and possibly lifelong medical treatment. In addition to addressing specific illnesses, funding will be required for future medical monitoring for themselves and their children, including monitoring for possible radiation-induced genetic mutations. Some of the radiological particles inhaled by these service personnel have long half-lives, from six to 50 or even 100 years.

Needless to say, the Japanese government has a wealth of information about what actually happened, and when, at Fukushima No. 1. Thus it would seem legally as well as morally appropriate for the government to share its Fukushima-related knowledge with the Federal Court in the Southern District of California.

This could be done, for example, in the form of an amicus curiae brief — that is, a brief submitted by someone not a party to a case who nevertheless possesses relevant information that may assist the court. My first question to you, Minister Miyazawa, is: Are you and the Japanese government willing to submit such a brief?

It is significant that the builders of the Fukushima No. 1 reactors — General Electric, EBASCO, Toshiba and Hitachi — are also defendants. This is because the reactors for Units 1, 2 and 6 were supplied by General Electric, those for Units 3 and 5 by Toshiba, and Unit 4 by Hitachi. General Electric, however, designed all six reactors, and the architectural plans were done by EBASCO.

In particular, GE knew decades ago that the design of its Mark I reactors installed at Fukushima No. 1 was faulty. Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming convinced that the Mark I’s design was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident. They publicly testified before the U.S. Congress on the inability of the Mark I to handle the immense pressures that would result if the reactor lost cooling power.

Their concerns proved all too accurate at Fukushima No. 1, a disaster that has yet to end given the continued massive radioactive contamination of the ocean.

In light of this, Minister Miyazawa, I end this message with one final question: Why hasn’t the Japanese government, like the American sailors, filed its own lawsuits against these same companies to determine their legal liability? In other words, why are the Japanese people being forced to pay for the possibly negligent actions of some of the world’s largest corporations?


Yellow Springs, Ohio ”


Nuclear Watch: Fukushima fallout update Arnie Gundersen & Dr. H. Caldicott — The Stream