In March of 2011, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan rushed to Japan to help after the disastrous tsunami. Since then, many sailors from that ship have fallen ill, possibly as a result of exposure to radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. They will soon have their day in court.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.