SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Five months after participating in humanitarian operations for the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that led to nuclear disaster in Japan, Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Hair’s body began to betray him.
He had sharp hip pains, constant scabbing in his nose, back pain, memory loss, severe anxiety and a constant high-pitch ringing in his ears as his immune system began to attack his body. The diagnosis, he said, was a genetic immune system disease, which on X-rays looked to have made his hip joint jagged and his spine arthritic. He was put on a host of medications and eventually separated from the Navy job he loved.
Hair believes radiation is the cause. He is among 50 sailors and Marines in a growing lawsuit against Tokyo Electric Power Co., alleging that Japan’s nationalized utility mishandled the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant that spewed radiation into the air and water.
Other servicemembers have been diagnosed with leukemia, testicular cancer and thyroid problems or experienced rectal and gynecological bleeding, the lawsuit says. Hair said one of his friends, a fellow USS Ronald Reagan shipmate, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The Defense Department and other organizations have said the radiation levels that troops were exposed to during Operation Tomodachi were safe, implying that any cancers or physical ailments since then are coincidental. Nearly half of all men and one-third of all women in the U.S. will develop cancer during their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society.
Most of the plaintiffs contacted by Stars and Stripes did not return messages. Several said they were being threatened and harassed through anonymous phone calls and social media for bringing the suit and declined to comment. The plaintiffs have been accused of being fortune-seekers by their peers and for allegedly sullying the operation’s goodwill.
Sebourn said he went to doctors more than a dozen times, but no one knew what had caused the former personal trainer to lose 70 percent of the strength in the right side of his body. He retired after 17 years in Japan.
Sebourn is alarmed that the word “radiation” doesn’t appear anywhere in his service record, even though that was his job and he was exposed to it. He believed troops exposed would be red-flagged in their service records and be tracked for medical problems.
The Defense Department created the Operation Tomodachi Registry to show radiation dose estimates based on shore locations — and to list more than 70,000 DOD-affiliated people in the area March 12-May 11, 2011 and their individual exposure levels. More than two years after the disaster, the registry remains incomplete.
Shinzo Kimura, a professor at Dokkyo Medical University in Japan, had been collecting radiation contamination data and studying the radiation exposure risks from Chernobyl. He was the first scientist on the ground in Fukushima after the disaster, and he said he was compelled to take readings because he didn’t trust Japan’s government.
“My heart breaks greatly that those servicemembers, who worked for Japan during Operation Tomodachi, suffered radiation exposure,” he said.
The U.S. military has refused requests from Stars and Stripes for detailed information about the types of toxins and the levels that personnel were exposed to during Operation Tomodachi. U.S. Forces Japan has said samples collected from areas where troops deployed near Sendai were analyzed for hundreds of environmental contaminants, but they have not released information about how many samples were taken in the disaster zone or how many sites were surveyed.