Dead soldiers' families want outside probe

By MARK BENJAMIN   |   Aug. 13, 2003 at 4:55 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- The families of two soldiers in Iraq who died after apparently suffering pneumonia-like illnesses are seeking independent analyses of the deaths.

"We as a family are concerned that we are not being told the truth," say the similar Aug. 12 letters to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, facilitated by the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans' advocacy group.

The Army announced Aug. 5 that it was dispatching two teams to spearhead medical investigations into a cluster of serious pneumonia cases that have struck at least 100 soldiers in Iraq and southwest Asia. Fifteen of the soldiers needed respirators to breathe and two have died, according to the Pentagon. Officials said the mysterious pneumonia does not appear to be contagious, and are close to ruling out biological or chemical warfare, SARS and Legionnaire's disease.

One of the deaths being investigated by the Pentagon is the July 12 death of Army Spc. Joshua M. Neusche, 20, of Montreal, Mo.

The Pentagon has listed Neusche's death under "other causes."

The letter to Rumsfeld signed by "The Neusche Family" asks for access to Joshua Neusche's medical records, pre-deployment serum, blood and tissue samples and vaccine injury reports, among other things. "We will consult with medical experts who will help us in obtaining a second opinion on Josh's death," the letter says.

"It is our right to receive truthful, honest and unfiltered answers just as the military required truth, honesty and commitment from our son," the letter says.

The Army is also looking at the June 17 death of Army Sgt. Michael L. Tosto, 24, of Apex, N.C. His death is listed as "illness."

The family of another soldier, Army Spc. Zeferino E. Colunga, 20, of Bellville, Texas, wrote the second Aug. 12 letter to Rumsfeld, even though the Department of Defense specifically said it was not related to the pneumonia cluster.

"Our son, Army Specialist Zeferino Eusebio Colunga is one of the casualties of this 'so-called' mystery illness," says the letter signed by "The Colunga Family." The family is also seeking an independent analysis of Colunga's Aug. 6 death.

An Aug. 7 Pentagon statement on Culunga's death does not list a possible cause but states, "His death was unrelated to the recent cases of pneumonia in southwest Asia."

According to the family's letter, "He died at a hospital in Germany after a battle with pneumonia and a subsequent diagnosis of acute leukemia."

"We deserve to know why a healthy young man who was supposedly screened and determined fit for deployment would suddenly die. It is our right to receive honest answers," the letter says.

Last week, the father of another soldier, Army Spc. Rachael Lacy, 22, of Lynwood, Ill., complained that the Army had excluded Lacy's death from their investigation. Lacy died following a constellation of symptoms including pneumonia, according to her father.

Moses Lacy told UPI that, "the common denominator (in the mysterious deaths) is smallpox and anthrax vaccinations."

"The government is covering this up and it is a doggone shame," he said.

The Army said it is excluding Lacy's death from its investigation because she never made it to Iraq or southwestern Asia where it says the cases are clustered. "She was never deployed to Iraq," Army Surgeon General spokeswoman Virginia Stephanakis told UPI.

Stephanakis did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment on the letters to Rumsfeld.

A co-author of a government-sponsored study of possible side effects from the anthrax vaccine told UPI last week that the Army should look at whether that vaccine is behind the cluster of pneumonia cases. That study last year found the vaccine was the "possible or probable" cause of pneumonia in two soldiers.

Some doctors following these new cases wonder whether the pneumonia might reflect a larger autoimmune system problem triggered by a vaccine, either anthrax or possibly smallpox.

A group of veterans and parents of soldiers in Iraq called "Bring Them Home Now" held a news conference Wednesday to hammer the Bush administration and the Pentagon for the Iraq war. Parents affiliated with the group, which claims to speak for 600 families, said the White House misled the nation before the war, and now is covering up the causes and number of wounded or ill soldier.

Michael McPhearson from Bloomfield, N.J., served in the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during Desert Storm/Desert Shield. McPhearson, whose 18-year-old son has decided to join the Army, said the military has done little to prevent another wave of mysterious illnesses like Gulf War Syndrome. "We have done nothing different this time to protect soldiers from illness. We can only pray that the outcome is different."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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