US Navy Sailors Search for Justice after Fukushima Mission
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.
The Fukushima catastrophe changed the world. Nuclear reactors melted down on live television and twice as much radioactive material was released as during the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The disaster drove 150,000 people from their towns and villages, poisoned entire landscapes for centuries and killed hundreds of thousands of farm animals. It also led countries around the world to rethink their usage of nuclear energy. Fukushima is more than just a place-name, it is an historical event – and it would seem to have changed the life of Leticia Morales as well.
It has been a painful experience, and not just because of the poor state of her health. It has also put her into conflict with her deepest convictions. The military she serves has told her that her mission on the coast of Japan was not dangerous to her health, but she is sick all the same. Morales joined the Navy when she was 19-years-old to give her life structure and a purpose, as she says. She spent a significant chunk of her youth in homes and at foster families because her mother was not able to care for her and her siblings. She only got to know her father as a grown woman. After joining, she went to basic training in the Nevada desert and then headed out onto the water.
Morales hadn’t felt anything, of course, with the open seas gliding smoothly under the ship. Furthermore, she had participated in a similar humanitarian mission after a deadly typhoon had struck the Philippines in 2008, so the diversion to Japan was nothing new for her. “It’s what we do. We help,” she says.
At first, she knew nothing about the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power facility, but says that, during the journey up the coast, she experienced a metallic taste in her mouth. Others noticed it too and Morales says the sailors even exchanged concerned glances. People exposed to radiation often complain of such a metallic taste and Morales now believes that this was the moment when they sailed through the cloud of nuclear radiation that Fukushima sent out over the Pacific.
It was summer in Washington when she arrived home and she would have largely forgotten about the mission in Japan if it hadn’t been for the pesky forms she had to fill out: How long were you outside? Where were you exactly?
She wrote: I was always on the flight deck. The whole time.
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.
In the meantime, the Defense Department had presented Congress with the results of a study focusing on the Navy’s part of Operation Tomodachi. The study concluded that even those sailors who had spent the whole time on USS Ronald Reagan’s flight deck had not been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The report also found that their exposure to contaminated water during the mission did not exceed the total radiation experienced by passengers on cross-country airline flights. Furthermore, the report found, cancer caused by radioactivity develops much slower than that experienced by the ill sailors.
A Pentagon representative thanked Congress for its interest in the health of military personnel and said they had checked everything but found nothing suspicious.
Letitia Morales, meanwhile, was left with an endocrinologist whose name she couldn’t remember, her thick medical files and the stories of a couple of other comrades on the flight deck who had also fallen ill.
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Sometimes a picture is worth one-thousand words:
Steve Simmons was honorably discharged from the Navy for medical reasons last June. His complaints began about a year after he returned from Japan when his muscles began to fail and his hair began falling out by the handful. Four years ago, he competed in triathlons and hiked in the mountains. Now, he can no longer walk – and nobody can tell him why.