A soldier named Lucky, part 2: Soldier went from smoke of war to frustrating battle for treatment

Monday, February 14, 2011
Lucky Sands with her daughter Ceylon. In 2001, Lucky joined the U.S. Army Reserve 348th Engineer Company in Cape Girardeau to serve her adopted country. Her military career included 15 months in Iraq from 2003-2005 and a humanitarian mission to El Salvador in 2006.

November 2009

Lucky came home to Cape Girardeau alone, bearing the weight of that massive oxygen tank.

It was 1:30 a.m., Nov. 14. Cynthia and Lal waited up for her, expecting to find a medical traveling companion with her. The only one there to help was the BART Transportation driver, who carried Lucky's bags to the front door. The slumping soldier struggled, limping as she dragged the rolling oxygen tank behind her. Once inside the door, she fell to the couch, spent from the long journey from Washington, D.C.

Cynthia gasped.

"She came home with that heavy oxygen saying, 'They're not doing anything for me,'" Cynthia recalled. "She could hardly walk and they sent her home alone."

Lucky told her parents, who were taking care of Ceylon at Lucky's Hilltop Lane home, that she had run out of patience with Walter Reed. She was growing weaker by the day. She wanted to be home, with her family, for the holidays.

She was giving up.

"We thanked the Lord when she was taken to Walter Reed. We thought Walter Reed was supposed to be the best military hospital in the world so we had a lot of hope that they would do something for our daughter, but it was the other way around," Cynthia said.

Some of Lucky's Army comrades say the Heraths may have had an unrealistic expectation of the U.S. military medical system, particularly Walter Reed. Maybe Lucky did, too.

"She kept believing that the VA was going to take care of her, but nothing ever really happened," said Chris Amacker, whom Lucky often confided in during the first couple of years of her illness, before she was sent to Walter Reed.

Media and government scrutiny in recent years has tested the reputation of the American military health care system.

A 2005 Salon.com article, followed by an extensive investigative expose two years later in the Washington Post, detailed multiple cases of outpatient neglect of wounded soldiers and deplorable living conditions at Walter Reed's convalescence houses, specifically Building 18. The media attention led to the removal of high-ranking Walter Reed officials, and the formation of a presidential commission to address the allegations.

The scandal, too, spurred an extensive examination of the Veterans Affairs health care system. The VA launched its own analysis of its medical facilities following allegations of mismanagement and bureaucratic morass that many of Lucky's fellow soldiers assert forces wounded veterans to fight for their health care.

Earlier this month, John Cochran Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis, where Cynthia said Lucky spent two fruitless weeks hospitalized in 2007, canceled all surgeries after staff found some operating room equipment possibly contaminated with stains and water spots. Missouri's U.S. senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt joined Illinois U.S. senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin in demanding details from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Shinseki on Thursday called the unsterile equipment "an isolated incident." Last June, officials sent letters to 1,812 veterans telling them they were potentially exposed to disease due to sterilization problems at the dental clinic. At the Marion, Ill., VA Medical Center surgeries remain shut down have after problems surfaced there in 2007.


2003-2005

The fight was on from the moment her unit stepped on to that patch of dirt with bullet-riddled buildings just to the northwest of the Baghdad International Airport. But by this time, the enemy wasn't wearing uniforms and they were everywhere -- and nowhere.

Sgt. Lucky Sands' Army Reserve unit was called up for duty in December 2003, and by early 2004 it was situated at Logistics Base Seitz near the Abu Ghraib neighborhood. Combat missions had been declared complete -- "Mission accomplished" -- several months before. Now, soldiers like Lucky faced the disappearing/reappearing faces of a burgeoning insurgency, and its members would prove much more deadly than Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.

While Lucky served in mess operations, she also was an M249 SAW gunner for transport and security missions.

She had prepared for this. Road marches, weapons training, a crash course in landmine installation and detonation, and lessons on how to survive a gas attack -- critical in preparing to engage an enemy said to have stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Log Base Seitz was a magnet for mortar attacks, so much so that soldiers in the area began jokingly referring to a little cantina on the compound as "Mortaritaville."

"She got mortared like crazy there," said Dowdy, who served in a different company not far from Log Base Seitz. "I got pinned down one time watching her company just get tore up." Lucky was injured in one of those attacks, hit by shrapnel, fellow soldiers said. She earned a Purple Heart and the Army Commendation Medal for courage under fire.

Lucky once confided in her brother that one of her jobs involved defusing explosive devices at night by torchlight. One wrong move and ... she lived on that deadly line. One night, instead of reporting directly to a military post, Lucky placed a phone call to her husband.

"Even though she had talked to him once before she decided to call him," Roshan said. "It delayed her five minutes and because she got delayed she escaped certain death: The post she was going to took a direct hit."

The notes from a VA mental health assessment note Lucky's base suffered more than 60 casualties, including 10 deaths. Lucky watched fellow soldier Sgt. Melvin Mora die in June 2004. An incoming mortar struck the base's latrine. Lucky got out just in time; Mora didn't, the VA report said. Three Iraqi females also were murdered because of their friendship with the soldier, the mental health assessment stated.

For more than a year, Lucky lived in the smoke and smog of war. Explosions, burning buildings, smoldering vehicles, rotting bodies, burning bodies and animal carcasses in the burn pits.

"It was nasty," said Terry Dowdy, who was deployed to Iraq several months before Lucky's was called up and sent with another unit. "When we got there, there was still rotten bodies on the ground. You get a lot of stuff burning, smoldering tanks with bodies burning."

In 2001, Lucky Sands joined the U.S. Army Reserve 348th Engineer Company in Cape Girardeau to serve her adopted country. Her military career included 15 months in Iraq from 2003-2005 and a humanitarian mission to El Salvador in 2006.

The open-air burn pits, particularly the one at the mega Joint Base Balad, about 40 miles north of Bagdad, may have exposed tens of thousands of troops, contractors and Iraqis to cancer-causing dioxins, arsenic, carbon monoxide and hazardous medical waste, according to an October 2008 story in the Army Times. The burn pit at Ballad has consumed Styrofoam, unexploded ordnance, petroleum products, plaster, rubber, paints and solvents, and medical waste, including amputated limbs, according to a memo from Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, obtained by the publication.

Curtis, former bioenvironmental flight commander for Joint Base Balad, said there was an acute health hazard for individuals, and that there existed the possibility of chronic health hazards associated with the smoke, the Army Times reported.

Most large military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iraq have burn pits, and many have not had standard operating procedures, according to a 2008 report from think tank Rand Corp.

Curtis, in the Army Times piece, said troops may have been exposed to benzene -- an aircraft fuel known to cause leukemia -- hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric acid, among a long list of deadly chemicals.

Larry Smith, whose deployment overlapped with Lucky's, said there was always a lot of smoke whenever he drove over to the compound to visit his friend.

"You are going to breathe that stuff in if you're not wearing gas masks," he said. "I think that's what happened -- she got it in her lungs."

Later, as her health was deteriorating, Lucky told fellow soldier Paul Mingus, who served with Dowdy in the 389th Engineer Company, that she believed her illness was the result of gasses spewed from those mortar attacks. She repeatedly told VA health care providers that, too. In October 2007, she brought VA physicians medical information pertaining to "Gulf War Syndrome," the malaise experienced by U.S. troops exposed to chemicals in the first war in Iraq. It was one of many examples of Lucky's quest for medical explanations to her conditions, a fact a VA executive readily confirms. Medical notes dated Oct. 10, 2007, list possible lupus or Gulf War Syndrome as causes of Lucky's health problems. There appears to be no subsequent reference.

Dr. Amy Joseph, attending physician for Lucky during many of her stays at John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis, said her symptoms were determined to be consistent with lupus. But Joseph said she wasn't sure whether the VA ever completed a toxinic exposure history on Lucky.

"I can't answer if such a history was ever obtained; it wasn't very relevant to her workup," Joseph said during a teleconference Friday with the Southeast Missourian.


There's a multicolored decorative plate on a shelf in the dining room. It's one of many spiritual- and-religious-themed decor items in this Christian home situated in a middle-class Cape Girardeau neighborhood. Bearing the words "Blessing of the Home," the plate is a prayer.

"Through this gate shall come no sadness

To this dwelling shall come no trouble

Through this door shall come no fear

In this place shall be no conflict."

But there is conflict here, trapped in the amber of painful memories that Cynthia finds impossible to let go.

There's hope here, too, and pride. Cynthia points to the glass case above the fire place, a display case, a shadow box, filled with Lucky's many medals for distinguished military service. There's the framed picture of Lucky dressed in camo fatigues, her young daughter by her side. The Christmas card of Cynthia, Lal, Ceylon, her cocker spaniel and Lucky, smiling. But that was their last Christmas together, 2009. Behind the smile is the pain, and for Cynthia the photo puts her daughter's suffering in focus again. In the shadow box also is the folded American flag given to loved ones of fallen soldiers.

It had been worse. Ceylon couldn't live at the house on Hilltop Lane anymore. She said the couch smelled like her mother. Cynthia, too, couldn't stand going into the bathroom where she had once discovered the bloody urine Lucky had forgotten to flush. There was too much dying in that house.

So Cynthia and Ceylon for a time stayed with the only other Sri Lankan family in Cape Girardeau while Cynthia, with the help of friends, purchased the house on Woodland Hills Drive.

On the wall above the basement stairs is painted the foundation of the Heraths' faith: John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."

Cynthia is leaning on those words more than ever.

"Nothing but my faith keeps me," she says. "I still don't know why God has brought me to this." When the memories get too much, Cynthia says she thinks of the words of Mother Teresa, who said that when she struggled to understand, she trusted God.

"That's where I find my comfort," Cynthia says.

Ceylon, barely a teen, has spent the better part of the past five years living in the shadow of her mother's illness and death. She doesn't like to talk about it, and like Lucky, she's good at hiding her emotions, family and friends say.

"Ceylon has always been mature for her age, the influence of Lucky's personality because Lucky was such an independent person," says Janice Margrabe, administrator of Eagle Ridge Christian School in Cape Girardeau, where Ceylon spent much of her elementary and middle school education. "Even at the funeral Ceylon was very nonemotional. There were times I just wanted to see that emotion in that little girl."

Cynthia says her granddaughter is much stronger than she in many ways, an attribute Cynthia greatly admires. Ceylon comforts her grandmother.

"Every time she sees me sad, she says, 'Grandma, don't be sad, because now mommy takes orders from Jesus. She's in God's Army," Cynthia says.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

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