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Soldiers' noncombat deaths leave nagging questions

Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram
By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, Staff Writer

In the loft of her house in Newcastle, Barbara Damon-Day spends every morning searching for answers to why her son, National Guard Capt. Patrick D. Damon, died suddenly in Afghanistan on June 15.


"I feel very tuned in. Every day, when I get out of bed, I think of a name to call," she said. "It's been a very significant part of my grieving."

In Biddeford, in an office at Southern Maine Medical Center, Andrew Schneider spends most days attending to a full schedule of respiratory patients. His son, Army Spc. Matthew E. Schneider, also died unexpectedly and of unknown causes, in Iraq on Aug. 28.

"I'm not a traditional basket case," he said. "My issues are nothing compared to what these soldiers still over there are going through."

The two and their families are strangers to each other, as were their soldier sons. Yet each is trying to contend with the death of a son -- without any explanation for why he died.

"You can't start to put your grief behind you until you know how he died," said Cindy Tardiff, Schneider's mother. "I know I'll never get over losing my son, but it will get better once I have some sort of an answer."

Across the Army, there had been 70 "sudden and unexpected" deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom through Sept. 15, according to the Offices of the Surgeon General and Medical Command. Sixty-three of those occurred in Iraq, the other seven in Afghanistan. Two were soldiers from Maine.

DEATHS HAD SIMILARITIES

In life, Patrick Damon, 41, and Matthew Schneider, 23, didn't have a lot in common. Damon had been an adviser to four speakers of the Maine House of Representatives and a staff member at the Public Utilities Commission; Schneider had enlisted in the Army in 2003 and wanted to get a degree in computer technology.

Damon was a husband and a father of two teenage children living in Falmouth. Schneider lived with friends in Gorham, N.H., and split time between his mother in Lunenburg, Vt., and his father in Kittery.

Damon deployed to Afghanistan in April and was looking forward to finishing 20 years of service in the National Guard this month. Schneider was planning to re-enlist this month for another six years.

But the circumstances surrounding their deaths are strikingly similar. Both had been healthy and active in the weeks prior to their deaths, but began complaining of physical ailments -- Damon of small boils on his body and Schneider of coughing up blood -- a few days before they died. Both collapsed after coming back from their daily runs. And Army officials initially told both families the cause of death had been a heart attack.

"Everyone on Earth knows what it means when those uniforms show up at your door," said Barbara Damon-Day. "They said 'Your son died of a heart attack.' And I said, 'No way.'"

"My first thought was that they blew up the base," said Andrew Schneider. "This was a kid that could do a hundred push-ups or a hundred sit-ups in one go."

Neither soldier had a known family history of heart disease or a personal history of substance abuse. And, as it turns out, the Army now says they may not have died of heart attacks at all.

"A sudden death of a young person can come from multiple causes, and to say it's a heart attack is premature, certainly without any kind of proof," said Maine Army National Guard State Surgeon Patrick Tangney. "Somebody's shooting their mouth off, and they probably shouldn't be."

Yet the majority of inexplicable deaths on the battlefield are later traced to heart problems, Army Medical Command spokeswoman Cynthia Vaughn said.

"In some cases, this is the first time the disease becomes known," she said. There are other potential causes as well, ranging from environmental stressors to drug or vaccine reactions, to unpredictable attacks such as Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.
For that reason, Vaughn said, a complete autopsy and a criminal investigation are conducted as a matter of protocol.

Such procedures can keep families waiting for an answer for three months or more. That wait becomes even longer -- or indefinite -- if results are inconclusive.

A MAELSTROM OF QUESTIONS

Damon's family has been waiting 312 months for the results of Damon's autopsy. In the meantime, bits of information have been trickling in.

"I recently received his medical records," said Hildi Halley, Damon's wife, who said her husband never told her about the boils -- probably not to worry her, she guessed. "They said it was an allergic reaction to the malaria medication they were giving him," she said, "so they switched him to Larium and said, 'Continue as usual.'"

Larium is an anti-malarial drug that has been criticized recently for severe side effects, and whose safety became the subject of a congressional inquiry in 2004.
The report also revealed that Damon had an infection in the tissue around his heart.
With this new information, Halley then started looking further back. Damon's computer and Palm Pilot hard drives had been erased -- upsetting Halley greatly -- but she soon found an e-mail from her husband to an anesthesiologist friend asking about Cipro -- an antibiotic used for a wide range of ailments, including anthrax poisoning -- which he was taking daily.

"They had told him it was for malaria," she said, reading from the e-mail. "Nowhere in these records does it say they gave him Cipro at all. And what about the vaccines he took? Part of me wonders if maybe he contracted smallpox from a vaccine."
Dealing with the maelstrom of her own questions, Halley said, is keeping her in a tailspin.

"I'm pretty upset right now, but I'm going to hope for the best," she said. "I hope the Army does have the best interest of the soldiers -- and their families -- at heart."

That is something of which Cindy Tardiff says she is convinced.

"The Army has treated me so well, as though I was a wonderful person that raised a hero," she said, remarking that the casualty assistance officer assigned to her has contacted her every day and put her in touch with some of Schneider's friends.

Still, she said she is anxious to find out what happened and whether her son's death was linked to symptoms he had described having a few days before he died.

"He had been caught in a sandstorm less than a week before he died," she said. "He never complained about anything -- so to have him bring this up really got me worried. But I never worried about him getting sick and dying. Your 23-year-old isn't going to die of anything, unless it's a war injury."

In fact, the number of American soldiers who have died of noncombat injury or disease has exceeded the number of soldiers dying in combat in most of America's wars. In that regard, Iraq and Afghanistan pose somewhat of an anomaly. About 20 percent of the more than 3,000 American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have been classified as noncombat.

"The hard and fast of it is, anytime you take a group of 130,000 or 140,000 people, there are going to be deaths," said Tangney, the Maine Guard surgeon. "These cases are tragic, and everybody, I think, is looking for answers," he said. "Unfortunately, there aren't always answers."

Currently, the Army attempts to screen for allergies and other pre-existing conditions with a predeployment health assessment that relies largely on a review of a soldier's medical history and a basic medical check-up.

From that, a determination is made about whether the soldier is fit for vaccination against such threats as smallpox, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever and anthrax poisoning. Soldiers may refuse the anthrax vaccine, but all others are mandatory for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

ONE WAITS, ONE PROBES

Tangney said the Army tries to balance the risks. "Any drug has a side-effect profile -- but so does not taking the drugs have a profile," he said.

In a place such as Iraq or Afghanistan, there are also environmental risks: heat, sandstorms and high elevations can create physical difficulties for soldiers unused to such conditions. "It's unfortunate, but sometimes young, healthy people do die," he said, though it is often difficult for families to accept it.

That is something that Andrew Schneider said he keeps reminding himself.
"Being in health care, I don't speculate," he said. "Personally, I may have my opinion, but no physician in their right mind would speculate on a diagnosis without having all the data. My son died with his uniform on. He loved the military, and it's to his benefit to wait for the investigation to finish."

As much as he would like answers, Schneider said, he is comfortable waiting.

"I really feel strongly that the Army is trying to do the right thing," he said. "But there's a war going on, and our problems are not high on the list. My son is just one of many -- not that he's insignificant, but we don't want to distract from the issue."

Damon-Day said she can't sit back and wait for the greater issues of the war to be resolved, even if Damon's death was simply a matter of chance. She is lobbying the military, Gov. John Baldacci and President Bush -- whom she met on his August visit to Maine -- to implement changes in health standards.

"I don't think it's almost ever been just to find out what killed Pat," she said. "I will find peace in my own heart by accomplishing the things that will save the lives of others in the military. If there's something that the military has yet to identify that is killing our troops, don't think it's going to stay under the table collecting dust for 20 years like dioxin."

Schneider said he, too, hopes to help other families, but that searching for a scandal isn't the way to go about it.

"This is nobody's fault that my son died," he said, explaining that the best way of contending with the death of a loved one is to be prepared, emotionally and organizationally. He advised others to keep journals to record conversations and facts relating to the soldier.

"You send someone off to war, there's a chance they won't come back," he said. "It's not negative. I'm just being realistic. We hope and pray for the best, and we have to be ready for the worst."

And they have to try to find closure in the aftermath.

"Working to bring these issues to light doesn't bring me joy," Damon-Day said, "but it does bring a certain level of fulfillment and hope. And if I can do something, Pat's death won't have been such a waste."

"I already have closure," Schneider said. "Matthew's mission on Earth is done. He was buried at Arlington (National Cemetery) with full military honors. Whatever comes now will only be informative."

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