(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 Tomadachi 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.”
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.