MIKE MELIA Associated Press Writer — October 12, 2009
ISABELA, Puerto Rico (AP) — The headaches began just after Hermogenes Marrero arrived on Vieques, the small Puerto Rican island where the young U.S. Marine guarded stores of Cold War-era chemical weapons.
The retired sergeant, now 57 and terminally ill with cancer and other ailments, blames exposure to toxins released while he was stationed there from 1970 to 1972. By coming forward to support similar claims by island residents, he has become the public face of a new and bitter battle over Vieques, the Navy bombing range-turned-tourist destination off the U.S. territory's east coast.
"I've been sick since I left Vieques," said the wheelchair-bound Marrero, who now lives in an apartment cramped with life-support equipment in this small town in northwestern Puerto Rico.
Marrero is a key witness in a lawsuit seeking billions of dollars in compensation for illnesses that past and current Vieques residents have linked to the bombing range, where the U.S. and its allies trained for conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq.
The range closed in 2003 after years of protests over the environmental risks and the death of a Puerto Rican civilian guard who was killed in 1999 by an errant bomb. Many had long complained about clouds of smoke and dust wafting toward populated areas and explosions echoing across the hilly, 18-mile-long island of less than 10,000 people.
The U.S. has denied any link between illnesses and weapons that rained down on the island for six decades. With independent studies suggesting otherwise, however, a federal health agency recently began a new analysis of the situation.
Marrero, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New York City, has had colon cancer twice. He is losing his vision and suffers from more than dozen other illnesses, including Lou Gehrig's disease, that he believes are lingering effects of his 18 months at Camp Garcia. He said he was recently diagnosed with a new bout of cancer that is inoperable in part because of a lung disease that requires him to stay on oxygen around the clock.
He is not party to the lawsuit because it is limited to Vieques residents, and involves more than 7,000 of them. But he has been fighting his own battle to have his ailments recognized as service casualties.
The chemicals he handled included canisters labeled "112" — a reference, he later surmised, to the secret Project 112 program that tested chemical and biological agents and was declassified by the Pentagon earlier this decade.
During some of the tests, he said, the military assessed how long it took an aerosol spray of chemicals to kill animals such as tethered goats. Though superiors said he was a safe distance from the tests, he was overwhelmed by a smell like roach spray every time he opened the door to the chemical warehouses. He said he vomited constantly.
"I asked 'How dangerous is that stuff? I'm watching animals drop dead,'" Marrero said. "They told me I'd be fine."
The military also experimented with napalm, depleted uranium and agent orange, besides the millions of pounds of ordnance that Navy aircraft and ships dropped annually on Vieques. A cleanup began in 2005 to clear thousands of unexploded munitions from the former training range site that is now a Fish and Wildlife Service refuge, and the island has placed new emphasis on tourism.
The Mississippi attorney for the plaintiffs in the Vieques lawsuit, John Eaves Jr., said Marrero's account is crucial to understanding the legacy of contamination.
"Sgt. Marrero's testimony really lets me know how much more investigation and research is needed in order to establish what was dropped on the island and what needs to be done to remedy that, so people on the island can start to rebuild their lives," Eaves said.
The lawsuit was originally filed in Washington in September 2007 and transferred to U.S. district court in San Juan in March. It has been challenged on national security grounds by the federal government, which argues it should be dismissed because the U.S. had sovereign immunity in Vieques. The Navy and the Justice Department declined to discuss the lawsuit or Marrero's claims.
The main evidence for Navy critics is a 2004 study by a former Puerto Rico health minister that found the cancer rate was 27 percent higher for people on Vieques than the Puerto Rican mainland. The study, which found no significant differences in lifestyle between the two groups, also detected a higher prevalence of other illnesses, including diabetes, asthma and epilepsy.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry used its own research to conclude in 2003 there was essentially no health risk from the bombing range, but its studies were widely criticized by islanders and academics.
The agency, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is conducting a new review requested in April by Congressman Steve Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat who said independent studies and reports have documented "a toxic legacy and a health crisis" on Vieques.
"We think the people of Vieques deserve our best effort," said Lisa Hayes, the project's lead scientist. "We want to review what's been done, look at everything that happened since we last looked, and just be sure we identify everything that needs to happen to promote the health of people of Vieques."
But islanders have their doubts.
Arturo Massol, a local scientist, said he and others invited to consult on the agency review fear it will be a whitewash, allowing the federal government to downplay the health risk. At a news conference Friday, Massol said they will hold their own formal discussion on the health situation in Vieques in Puerto Rico this month, despite an invitation to meet at the agency's headquarters in Atlanta.
The agency's last review, he said, became the baseline for policy on an island where people continue to eat local fish and produce and the Navy is clearing leftover bombs by detonating them — a practice that some fear is releasing more toxins. Island scientists say they are frustrated the agency has not withdrawn its earlier conclusions.
"It is up to them to do it right," said Massol, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.
After leaving the military in 1977, Marrero worked as a weapons machinist in the private sector until he retired in the mid 1980s because of mounting medical problems.
He has a 2006 report from a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor in Washington who linked his symptoms to exposure to "noxious substances" at Camp Garcia, but he said a review board has denied his requests to formally acknowledge the connection.
While his veterans benefits cover his medical bills, the only service-related ailment the military acknowledges is a shoulder injury. He said if he dies from anything else, his wife won't get his pension.
Katie Roberts, the press secretary for Veterans Affairs, said the department recognizes that service members are sometimes exposed to toxins "that can produce negative health effects." But she said benefits claims are handled on a case-by-base basis, and she declined to address Marrero's record specifically.
"Maybe I am continuously still a test," Marrero said. "How long will a soldier last after being exposed to poison?"