Hundreds of sailors and Marines, some from right here in the Northwest, are in the fight of their lives, battling a baffling mix of diseases they say came from radiation exposure. And it all started with a mission of mercy in 2011; bringing life-saving supplies to survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Some sailors insist the contamination lasted long after Operation Tomodachi ended.
“The Reagan initially docked within about two miles of shore,” said attorney Charles Bonner, who represents more than 200 sailors and Marines. He’s suing plant owner and operator TEPCO for debilitating illnesses they say came from exposure to Fukushima’s radiation. “And even at 100 nautical miles they were taking on 30 times more radiation than is normal,” he said.
Even sailors who joined the 7th Fleet immediately after Operation Tomodachi say they were affected. “I was on board the USS Germantown,” said former sailor Thomas McCants, who joined the 7th Fleet as a gunner’s mate right after the Japanese mission of mercy.
Like his identical twin, McCants says he’d always been the picture of health; an athletic teenager who competed in varsity sports and loved the Navy. “I wanted nothing more than to travel the world and get to see it for myself and serve my country.” But McCants says after just a few months aboard the Germantown he grew sicker and sicker. He says he had no appetite and battled constant fatigue. He went to his superior, “and I broke down into tears and I said, ‘Senior Chief, I’m sick. I need help. Something’s wrong.’ ”
But McCants says rather than sending him to a doctor or doing any medical tests, the Navy sent him to a psychologist and then offered an honorable discharge, which he took. “I felt like a total failure,” McCants said.
But McCants’ symptoms continued to worsen, and after a civilian doctor took blood tests, he had a diagnosis: chronic myeloid leukemia or CML. McCants says the doctor’s first question was if he’d ever been exposed to massive amounts of radiation. His answer? “The only time that I have ever had a chance of being exposed to radiation in my entire life is from Japan.”
The American Cancer Society says exposure to high dose radiation, such as in a nuclear reactor accident, is the only known environmental risk factor for CML. McCants points to his identical twin, who is still healthy and who is now three inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. “The interesting fact about my story is I got to the ship after Tomodachi and I still got sick with a cancer that’s only caused by radiation.”