5. A 27-minute life
April 8th, 2000
"This is where my son is sleeping," said Robert Lee West (36), as he drove his car into a spacious Catholic graveyard in southeast Nashville, capital of the state of Tennessee. We headed for the grave in a corner of the quiet graveyard.
His name was chiseled boldly on the small gravestone. "He only lived 27 minutes. He died in my arms." Squatting on his heels, West traced the letters with his fingers.
Daughter with hearing impairment
While Michael was in his mother's womb, his kidneys swelled to 19 centimeters (7.5 inches). This pressure on his other organs prevented them from developing properly.
"Actually, I have another child. My daughter Jessica's almost seven. Right now she's living with her mother Barbara (31). We divorced four years ago. She's been almost completely deaf from birth, and has always had pipes in her ears."
Jessica was born in 1993, two years after West fought in the Gulf War. The Wests also had a miscarriage between the births of the two children.
During the Gulf War, West handled DU shells in an army tank unit. "We always looked inside the destroyed Iraqi tanks to see if there were any survivors. I have no idea how much DU dust I inhaled."
Consulting a genetic scientist
Around April 1991, while he was still stationed in southern Iraq, West's health began to deteriorate. Severe headaches, diarrhea, joint pain - the list goes on. In June he returned to his base in Germany, living there until his discharge in February 1994. During Barbara's pregnancies, she returned to Nashville and lived with her parents so she could take good care of herself.
"Whenever we had sex, Barbara complained that her pelvic area felt like it was on fire. We both thought I must have brought some bad disease back from the Middle East. We had no idea about the real reason."
Right after Michael's birth, the couple went to a genetic scientist at Vanderbilt University Medical School for consultation. She suggested that Robert or Barbara might have a congenital kidney disease, but no one in either family had a kidney problem.
"Could it have been caused by a sudden radiation-induced genetic mutation or something like that?" To West's question, the female doctor replied, "It's possible, but this hospital doesn't support my theories on this." West said that she wrote nothing about this in his chart.
West's health gradually declined. After his divorce in 1996, he returned to his small hometown, Goodlettsville, about 25 kilometers north of Nashville. There, he helps his mother run a general store. He drives a school bus on the side.
Learning the truth
West says, "For my daughter's sake, I talk about everything with Barbara." In 1997, they attended a gathering in Kentucky for veterans of the Gulf War and their families. There, they learned for the first time that many other wives of veterans experience a burning sensation in their vaginas after sex and have had miscarriages and children with congenital defects.
"It was like the scales fell from our eyes. Why didn't the army or the government tell us beforehand about the danger of depleted uranium? We could hardly control our anger."
If West had known, he never would have passed the effects on to his wife and children. His eyes conveyed this clearly as he stared at Michael's gravestone.
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