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Troops take a personal precaution

Amid talk of war with Iraq, a few servicemen have banked their sperm. The reasons touch on various concerns, from biological warfare to survival.

January 27, 2003|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

Some servicemen heading to the Persian Gulf are leaving more than just their wives and fiancees behind: They're creating living legacies frozen in liquid nitrogen.

On their own initiative, about 16 troops have stopped by California Cryobank, a private sperm bank located in a discreet Westwood office building, to make a "deposit" during the past few weeks as they prepared to go overseas. That number exceeds the dozen soldiers who visited the clinic in all of 2002.

Their motivation? They fear that chemical and biological agents may cause infertility or birth defects when they return and want to start a family.

Though the servicemen's actions represent the extreme among the tens of thousands of troops being deployed in the U.S.' "Operation Enduring Freedom," they are a manifestation of growing fears about modern warfare's effect on reproductive health.

As much as or more than the weapons that Saddam Hussein might deploy, the soldiers are concerned about a type of biological "friendly fire" they will definitely face -- the very vaccines and prophylactic agents the U.S. military administers to protect them against biological, chemical and natural elements.

Soldiers around the world are apparently getting the same idea: There have been reports that small numbers of soldiers in Australia are banking their sperm as well. The Israeli Army has considered setting up a sperm bank for soldiers.

Behind the scenes in scientists' labs, there is growing evidence that their fears may be justified. A Department of Defense-funded study released earlier this month by Duke University researchers found that young adult male rats exposed to just three of the same chemicals to which Gulf War soldiers were exposed -- a prophylactic treatment against nerve gas, and two potent insecticides -- suffered significant damage to their testes, livers and brains. Sperm production also plunged, particularly when the rats were also subjected to stressful situations.

The Pentagon initiated the study at Duke after veterans of the 1991 war complained about infertility and sexual dysfunction, among numerous other ailments. "They were given chemicals to prevent harm that turned out to be harmful," said Dr. Mohamed B. Abou-Donia, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., one of the study's authors.

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Servicewomen's woes

Would Abou-Donia recommend soldiers freeze their sperm? "I think it's a very interesting idea. Some who go very young -- I can understand the need for it."

He pointed out that 49,000 women also served in the Gulf War, with many also reporting a host of maladies, including some reproductive woes. For women in the armed forces, there are scant options. A handful of clinics across the country have reported mixed success with freezing eggs, but the technology is still in its early stages. Freezing fertilized embryos is possible, but is much more complicated than a sperm donation: It takes several weeks, requires in vitro fertilization and costs upward of $10,000.

At least some branches of the U.S. forces aren't worrying about future fertility issues. Though the Navy in San Diego conducts training classes on making power-of-attorney documents, wills and child-care arrangements in case of death or disability, said spokesman Doug Sayers, there's no discussion about freezing sperm for future procreation.

Sayers, a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Medical Center in San Diego, the nation's largest military hospital, said that in response to a reporter's questions, he asked some senior naval commanders for their reaction to the idea of sailors donating sperm. Sayers said they laughed at the suggestion. "In their eyes, it falls into the absurd category."

He added, "Every deployment is potentially dangerous for every person who deploys. War is a dangerous business for them, whether it's severe injury or being killed outright, that possibility is always there."

It's usually the wives or fiancees of soldiers who raise the possibility of banking sperm for their men and make the initial phone calls about it, said Nolberto Delgadillo, California Cryobank's client storage manager. No single, unattached men have come in, he said.

During the consultation, it is also the women who do much of the talking. "They all indicated that they'd heard about long-term [health] effects from the Gulf War," said Delgadillo. They want the sperm, just in case. Some will even use it to start trying to get pregnant while their spouse is away.

Patrick Atwell's fiancee Angela Cruz, a licensed practical nurse, was the force behind the couple's decision to drive three hours south from their homes in Corcoran to California Cryobank's two-story brick building in downtown Westwood.

A colleague of Atwell's in the Army National Guard had been infertile for six years after returning from the Gulf War, a fact that soldier had attributed to the effects of the anthrax vaccine.

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