| A sailor from the Royal Australian Navy embraces his girlfriend before departing for the Persian Gulf. Australian soldiers are also depositing sperm. (Reuters)
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 Los Angeles 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 “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 US military administers to protect them against biological, chemical and natural elements.
Behind the scenes in scientists’ labs, there is growing evidence that their fears may be justified. A department of defence-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.
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 to California Cryobank.
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.
“I got to thinking about it,” Atwell said. “Angela said you’ll be exposed to all sorts of stuff.” She made numerous calls and checked the Internet to find somewhere that would store the sperm.
“I had to tell the same story over and over: ‘My fiance is going away to the war, when he comes back he may be sterile,’” said Cruz, who is 36.