On June 8th of this year, I received a letter, dated April 9th,
that included a two page summary of a 150 page report about any ill effects suffered by members of the Thomas and
the over 12,000 Navy and Marine personnel who were part of the SHAD test group. Every finding, outlined in the summary,
was qualified with “however”, “but”, “thus”, etc. For instance, “….participants
statistically had a significantly higher risk of death due to heart disease. However, the lack of cardiovascular risk
factor data as well as any explanation as to biological plausibility makes this latter difference difficult to interpret.” Even
the conclusion was qualified. In a study that started in September, 2002 and a report only recently released, the authors
stated, “While we have found no clear evidence of specific health effects that are associated with Project SHAD participation,
we must remark that this does not constitute clear evidence of a lack of health effects.” That, after over four
years (and one wonders at how much expense) while those exposed to SHAD testing grew older, some died, and all without a clear
explanation of what, and why, they were unwitting participants in what is now believed to have been clearly illegal tests.
One wonders what other revelations are still being held behind a shroud of secrecy, secrecy not due to national security considerations,
but to hide misconduct on the part of the Department of Defense and the Navy?
And it was learned, after the study was published, that the
single category of individuals with the most direct exposure to the biological and chemical agents that were being sprayed
on unsuspecting crews, those on the tug boats that actually sprayed the ships, weren’t even a part of the study!
But, while the Institute of Medicine was conducting the study and
as we renewed our acquaintances, I learned, not surprisingly, that the members of the Gunnery Division on the Thomas
had been successful in civilian life as well.
members, Rod Bunia in Michigan and Mike Antonio in Montana own their own mortgage companies and Carl Ellis in Maine retired
as a deputy fire chief. Charles Gears is a Program Manager and Service Engineer for Caterpillar in Indiana and Monty
Spears, after years of working as a law enforcement officer and private investigator, owns a grocery store in rural Idaho. Tom
“Dusty” Smith lives in Ohio where he is employed by a large global packaging company, Jim Cast retired as an illustrator
for the U.S. Army in Oklahoma and Donald “Duck” George had a distinguished career in law enforcement in Georgia.
Carroll Briley retired to Oregon after years as a heavy equipment operator and I spent more than twenty-five years with
the FBI. The hobbies of the group are indicative of the eclectic and energetic group that I knew on the Thomas. We
act in little theatre productions, build museum quality model planes and ships, hunt big game, build hot rods, serve in both
volunteer and in elected positions in our communities, lecture, travel, sail competitively and write books. We collect
coins, go to baseball games, play with model trains and now, as fathers and grandfathers, fly our flags and did so before
9/11. We vote in elections, we donate to charities, belong to veteran’s groups and we have great reverence to our
country. We have, simply, led useful and responsible lives.
However, at least two members, Carroll Briley and Jim Cast, believe their health problems are, at least partially,
attributed to the Project SHAD tests. In particular, Cast, who has suffered a myriad of respiratory related diseases,
has not been received sympathetically by the VA. This is in spite of a Veterans Affairs study completed in the fall of
2001, but never released to the public or the affected veterans, suggests that veterans associated with the Project SHAD tests
may have increased risk for cerebrovascular diseases and respiratory diseases. Further a study of almost one hundred
deceased veterans revealed that those veterans were three times more likely to die of respiratory and vascular disease than
the general population.
But as we began to
reconnect with one another, one shipmate was missing. He was from the small town of Ono, Pennsylvania where, he often
told us, his family operated the only diner in town. While rather quiet, he worked hard, was bright and always quick
to smile. He was simply, a good shipmate, about as high an accolade that can be applied to anyone.
Efforts to locate this shipmate met with failure, so finally I decided to travel
to Ono, about a six-hour drive from where my wife, Carla and I live in Virginia. We arrived in Ono early in the afternoon
and began to ask around for anyone who remembered the family, but had no luck. We drove to nearby Lebanon to spend the
night and while browsing through the area phone book, I found a couple entries with identical last names to the shipmate.
The first such call I made was answered by his widow. The conversation with his widow was followed by phone conversations
with his daughter and a brother. Plans were made to meet the daughter and the widow the following morning at a restaurant
on the site of the former Ono Diner.
It was there
that I finally learned what had happened to the missing shipmate. He had returned to Ono in 1968, determined to live
and work in his hometown. After his father’s death, he had worked in the diner, but once a nearby interstate was
completed, business in the diner had declined to the point it had to be closed. There he had already suffered tragedy
in his life. Two younger brothers had died before they reached maturity. He was working for the State of Pennsylvania,
married with a small daughter when he became ill. Less than three years later, before his thirty-second birthday, he
died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leaving a widow and five-year-old daughter. His was not an easy death.
I also learned he was from a Navy family. A brother retired
as a Lieutenant Commander and another brother too, had served in the Navy, as a boiler tender. One his great joys, as recalled
by his widow, was for the three brothers to get together and talk of their time spent far away from Ono while in the Navy. The
Navy never left him either.
His widow told of how he had applied for benefits from the Veterans Administration at the time of his
illness, but had been denied. However, about twelve years after his death, suddenly and without any real explanation,
she had received a check with retroactive payments to the time he had made the original claim. His widow, who has never remarried,
began to receive a small monthly allotment and his daughter, by then entering her senior year in high school, received assistance
to attend college. She completed college at Penn State University, with assistance from the VA and her mother working
two jobs. She is successful in business and is too, unmarried. Her father would undoubtedly be proud of both his
wife and daughter.
But the information from the
VA was limited. While there was no mention of Project SHAD, apparently someone at the VA had concluded that his death
was somehow attributable to his four years service in the Navy.
Over the years, both his widow and daughter had moved away from Ono to surrounding small
towns. The diner was torn down, as was the family home. His family, once a fixture, no longer has any ties to the
small town. Even the postmistress, a long time resident of Ono, didn’t recognize the family name.
It was a hot and airless day, that summer day in 2006, as we stood
in the cemetery under the midday sun. I realized, as we quietly talked, that while his marker indeed told a lot, it also,
told very little. His marker is simply inscribed; “Robert F. Conahan, FTG 3, US Navy, Vietnam, 1946 1978”
and a small cross. The information is as bare and sparse as the marker itself, though it does, I suppose, tell a lot.
But it doesn’t nearly tell the whole story.
As we stood next to the marker, his widow talked about how
she planned on being buried next to him, indicating with her foot, exactly where her grave would be located. It
occurred to me that she has to wonder virtually each day about how her life would have been different, how much easier it
would have been, had he lived.
His daughter, all
pretty and teary, knelt and softly brushed the grass from the marker, the marker of a father whose only memory is when he
was on his deathbed. She has grown to adulthood, is successful in her work, but grew up without a father, yet, yearns
to find out all she can about a father she never really knew.
And the marker doesn’t tell the story of a good and decent man, a patriot, who died far too young. But
unlike many of his shipmates from the “G” Division on the Thomas, he died before he too, could realize
his full potential, before he could have been included among the “G” Division’s success stories.
I had finally found a shipmate, but didn’t feel any better
for the finding.
I.C. Smith resides on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula where he flies a Navy flag from
the yardarm of the flagpole in his front yard.