Widow fears Pentagon 'lying' on pneumonia

By MARK BENJAMIN   |   Aug. 21, 2003 at 5:48 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- Joining a growing chorus of families, the widow of a soldier in Iraq who died of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness said Thursday she fears the military may be lying about her husband's death.

She said she worries that he may have died from the anthrax vaccine shots the Army gave him.

"More and more I think it was the shots," said Stephanie Tosto, whose husband, Army Sgt. Michael L. Tosto, died June 17. Tosto said the military has given her little information about her husband's death.

"I think they [the Army] might be lying about this stuff," Tosto, 22, said in a telephone interview from Baumholder, Germany. "I really feel like it. Nobody can tell me anything. If it is the shots, then of course they are lying."

"We just want to know what happened and we have a right to know. But the Army is acting like they are trying to hide something, and that just makes it harder."

Michael Tosto, 24, died at Camp Wolf in Kuwait after falling ill in Iraq three days earlier. The military listed his death as "a non-combat related cause." Stephanie Tosto said the Army has told her that her husband had a pneumonia-like illness, but little more.

"They have told me that he had fluid in his lungs and it got into his tissue and I believe fluid around his heart," Tosto said.

Last week, the families of two soldiers who died after a pneumonia-like illness, Army Spc. Zeferino E. Colunga and Army Spc. Joshua M. Neusche, wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seeking an independent investigation into their deaths. "We as a family are concerned that we are not being told the truth," say the similar Aug. 12 letters to Rumsfeld, facilitated by the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans' advocacy group.

The Pentagon is investigating more than 100 cases of mysterious pneumonia among troops in Iraq and in Southwest Asia. Eighteen soldiers have required respirators, according to the Pentagon. At least two have died, Tosto and Neusche. The Army has said Colunga's death is not related to the cluster of pneumonia-like illnesses.

The week before, the father of a fourth soldier, Army Spc. Rachael Lacy, told United Press International that the military was "covering up" Lacy's April 4 death from vaccines. The civilian coroner who performed her autopsy and a doctor who treated her have both said the smallpox or anthrax vaccines she received March 2 might have caused her death, which followed a pneumonia-like illness.

"The common denominator [in the pneumonia-like illnesses] is smallpox and anthrax vaccinations," said Moses Lacy. "The government is covering this up and it is a dog-gone shame."

The Army has not classified Lacy's death as possibly related to vaccines.

In a fifth case, a staffer for Rep. Chris Shays said the Connecticut Republican is closely following the Pentagon investigation -- and the possibility that vaccines might play a role -- after the death of Army Staff Sergeant Richard S. Eaton Jr., 37, of Guilford, Conn., on August 12. Eaton's death was characterized by the Pentagon as a pulmonary embolism while sleeping. Shays has led hearings on the Pentagon's anthrax vaccination program.

Pentagon health officials did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment. The head of the Pentagon's vaccine program told UPI this week that vaccine side effects are an unlikely cause for the sicknesses and deaths.

"In 200 years of vaccinations, no vaccine has ever been shown to cause pneumonia and there are multiple reasons to believe that the vaccines have no role," said Col. John D. Grabenstein, deputy director for clinical operations at the Military Vaccine Agency.

Stephanie Tosto said another soldier on guard duty with Michael in Iraq on June 14 said he at first seemed fine, but over a period of hours he turned white, his lips went blue, he began vomiting and then vomiting blood. She said Tosto's medical records show him at a medical aid station June 15th complaining of "tightness in the chest."

On June 16 she had a telephone conversation with a doctor treating her husband who said Michael had bad pneumonia and trouble breathing. "The doctor sounded very concerned because he was having such trouble breathing," Tosto said.

She had a brief telephone conversation with her husband June 16. "He said, 'Hey baby, I'm sick. I have pneumonia.' He told me that he loved me. He sounded very weak and tired."

"The next day, Wednesday, they came to the house and said he died from complications from pneumonia," Tosto said. "When my husband died, the casualty officer asked me, 'Is it possible that Michael had heart problems?' Michael did not have heart problems. One other time they asked me if he had asthma. He was never sick."

Stephanie Tosto said that her husband's medical records show him receiving the first three of six scheduled anthrax shots before leaving Germany, the last on Feb. 26. She says another soldier from Tosto's 1st Armored Division said soldiers in the division did receive an anthrax shot in Iraq. Tosto arrived there on the first or second day in May.

Stephanie Tosto said the last pages of her husband's medical record showed redness and swelling in the arms but that the military would not allow her to see her husband's body until after an autopsy was performed in Germany. He was then in a dress uniform with white gloves.

She says Michael Tosto got a smallpox shot back in March. "He had to go back for the follow-up and he said he was feeling lousy" after getting that vaccine.

Stephanie Tosto said she struggles with explaining Michael Tosto's death to her 21-month-old son.

"He keeps pointing at his daddy's picture and saying, 'Daddy.' All I can tell him is 'Daddy went bye-bye.' So now he points at his picture and says, 'Daddy bye-bye.' I don't know what to tell him because I don't know. I wonder if I will ever know."

The Pentagon says the anthrax vaccine is safe.

In an August 2002 case study of a 39-year old "previously healthy man on active duty" in the Cardiopulmonary and Critical Care Journal CHEST, three military doctors described the case of a 39-year-old who was diagnosed with pneumonia that "may be due to the anthrax vaccine." And a review by a government advisory committee in 2002 found one case of pneumonia "considered probably related to [anthrax] vaccination."

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