Dead servicemen walking – The Human Impact of the RAAF Deseal / Reseal Scandal

This article was originally published by Armed Services magazine in Australia and we believe it dates from 2005. The article was written by Paul Daley and photos are by Richard Whitfield.

Forced to crawl inside F-111s through toxic sludge and fumes, these men are now doomed to a living death while Canberra looks the other way.

Allan Henry mows the lawn and washes up. On a bad day, the dishes can take an hour-and-a-half. He gets breathless, his body aches and the exertion of merely shifting them from suds to dish rack impels him to stop, exhausted, to rest. The back lawn of his Brisbane home can take two days to mow. He needs three to recover.

These prosaic tasks are all that link the husk of Allan Henry to the man he was in 1981: an optimistic young father with a promising career as an electrician in the Royal Australian Air Force. He insists on mowing and washing-up as if they were the last threads of his humanity, just as he clings to the mundane routine of daytime snoozes, endless doctors’ appointments and pottering around that form his twilight existence.

Allan Henry is 46. His wife says he looks 65. It breaks her heart. “Our plan was that we’d still be enjoying ourselves in middle age. The kids would be gone and we could travel. Tomorrow’s our 25th wedding anniversary. But there’s no party – he can’t go to parties any more,” says Kathleen Henry, a slim, tanned, intelligent woman who comes from generations of RAAF stock.

“We know they are all dead men walking. It’s a reality we all have to face and come to terms with. I know it sounds hard and callous. But it’s true. They are dead men walking.”

Allan Henry is slowly, prematurely, painfully fading away because the air force that he loved poisoned him.

It exposed him to a multitude of highly toxic chemicals that were used to clean and re-seal the faulty fuel tanks of Australia’s fleet of F-111 strike-bombers from 1973 until 2000. Since 1981, when he began experiencing mood swings, depression and crippling headaches while working on the planes, Henry’s health has steadily declined. He’s had dozens of carcinomas removed, his joints have seized, his respiratory and immune systems are shot and for 14 years he suffered weeping lesions all over his body. In 1999, the doctors told Kathleen and their three children, Allan wouldn’t survive the year.

Alan Henry passed away in 2008 aged 49.

But on he fights – as one of at least 400, but by some estimates as many as 800, seriously ill victims of a scandal that resulted from a mind-boggling, negligent and deadly failure in the RAAF’s chain of command. It is clear that RAAF commanders at Amberley Air Force base near Ipswich, west of Brisbane, where the F-111s are based, didn’t just allow two generations of technicians to work with chemicals they knew to be potentially deadly. They made them. Their health, it seems, was a small price to pay to keep the F-111s airborne.

Countless former servicemen who worked on the de-seal/re-seal (DSRS) program at Ambcrlcy have died of dreadful diseases. Some have taken their own lives. Other seriously brain-damaged men, lost inside the Kafkaesque maze that is Australia’s military compensation system, are frustrated to the point of suicide.

This tragedy is compounded by the victims’ ages: many are in their 30s, 40s and early 50s – people whose best years have been stolen just when they should be enjoying the rewards of middle age. Instead, they are living agonising, confused and uncertain final years and months.

A July 2001 military Board of Inquiry found the RAAF command at Amberley culpably failed to protect its personnel due to a chain of command malfunction. In layman’s terms, this means no superior officer put the health of his men ahead of the aircraft until late 1999, when a new sergeant complained. De-seal operations were immediately suspended.

At a time when a federal parliamentary committee is abot1t to report on failures in the military justice system, the episode stands as a shocking indictment of a “group think” culture that pervades sections of the military and allows such unjust – even, arguably, criminal – practices to continue unchecked. No senior RAAF personnel have ever been punished. The committee has given no in-depth consideration to the episode.

The 2001 military inquiry found “…the scale and duration of the problem indicates that we are dealing with a deep-seated failure for which no single individual or group of individuals can reasonably be held accountable”. Meanwhile, a health study concluded the de-sealers were 50% more likely to develop cancers than other military personnel and that many suffered from depression, erectile dysfunction, skin and respiratory diseases, cardiovascular and neurological disease, mood swings and memory problems.

Anecdotally, an inordinate number of de-sealers’ wives have miscarried or given birth to children with abnormalities. Many of their children are now experiencing reproductive problems. Many have failed to eke out any sort of living since being medically discharged. Hundreds of marriages have failed. Domestic violence is rife.

Military aircraft technicians are drawn from the top 5% to 10% of society’s IQ pool. It is compelling, then, that the University of Newcastle health study concluded the de-sealers today live among the 30% of society with the poorest lifestyle and health.

This is a dark, disturbing story with no prospect of a happy ending. Its central characters will never recover. Not even the swift delivery of compensation – as promised by the federal government – could change that.

This story’s only light comes through the window it opens onto a human spirit that compels these desperate people to keep fighting the system they so unquestioningly, so patriotically served.

It is a harrowing experience to sit with two desperately ill mates, both fathers in early middle age, while they blithely discuss suicide as if it were merely another medical treatment open to them.

Frank Cooper, 47, has the delivery, timing and presence of a stand-up comic. When you shake his knobbly hand, contorted by arthritis and punctuated by the space formerly inhabited by the amputated finger, you realise everything’s wrong. He’s edgy and anxious; like most former de-sealers, he suffers terrifying panic attacks, though they are the least of his medical problems. He is eager to launch into his story. For who knows? Tomorrow he mightn’t remember it.

But he defers to the younger, more obviously ill man, 46-year-old Rob Solomons. Solomons has gone irreversibly to seed. Of course, it’s impossible to stay fit when you’ve got chemically induced dementia and you’re debilitated by migraines and blackouts, depression, nerve damage in your feet and hands, chronically high blood pressure, bowel and digestive diseases and respiratory problems. His marriage has failed.

On top of all that, there’s the final indignity: the lingering emotional insecurity born of having been unable to get it up for years.

But Frank is a mate. So he can hang shit on Rob. He does so mercilessly and, as they sit in Rob’s living room in Donnybrook on the coast north of Brisbane, they bounce off one another like some dark version of The Two Ronnies.

“He can’t remember what fuckin’ day it is,” Frank says, gesturing to Rob. “Ask him if he wants a cup of tea… he’ll go and make one, forget he’s done it and five minutes later make another one. There’ll be three cups of tea sitting there and he’ll go and make another one. You should go for a drive with him… I mean, no fuckin’ way – you wouldn’t get in a car with the bastard.”

Both men laugh hysterically. There’s no pretence. Just the gallows humour of the condemned.

The mood quickly segues from black comedy to tragedy.

“Go on,” Frank urges, “tell him about what we were discussing just before he arrived.”

“What?” stammers Rob. “Sss-suicide, do you mean?”

“Yeah – suicide,” says Frank.

“Yeah, mate, yeah … suicide,” says Rob, twitching as he turns to address me.

“We’ve both been there so often it’s not funny. You feel so shithouse all the time, and you can’t remember anything so you let people down constantly. Then there’s the mmm-mood swings, so you’re bloody impossible to live with. And then there’s just this constant fight for the compensation and money worries that just wears you down further and further. The frustration and stress is huge. I can tell you, the only reason I’m alive today is because I live with a 12-year-old bbbbb-boy [his son, with whom he lives alone] who supports me so wonderfully. He walks over and gives me a big hug and says, ‘Dad, are you gonna be OK”?’. What do I say? I know I won’t be.”

It’s his son’s 13th birthday today. Rob would have forgotten. Except his Palm Pilot reminded him with the message: GET UP – IT’S NICK’S BIRTHDAY. TRY AND BE HAPPY. He tries hard to !Je a good dad. He feels guilty because there’s so much he can’t do.

Frank. now three years into his third marriage, has two kids. He’s only just hung onto this wife who, like the partners of most former de-sealers, hates his pain and finds him cantankerous and unpredictable, but mostly sad.

“A week after the honeymoon for my third marriage, ,we came back from Perth and straight away I had a complete breakdown because I was so stressed that I’d lose her, too… how do you think that made her feel?”

He’s had a heart attack and suffers severe psoriasis that makes him shed layers of skin, snake-like, in the bed every night. Chronic spondylitis has resulted in five vertebrae being surgically fused, accounting for his hunched appearance; he’ll be in a wheelchair before long. He drives with a restricted licence and can’t move his head much. In 1988, he was diagnosed with chronic sarcoidosis, a rare’ asbestosis-like condition (common among former de-sealers) that causes fungus to grow in the lungs and robs the victim of breath. A typical week comprises visits to the hydrotherapist, the physiotherapist, the podiatrist, the dermatologist, the GP, the osteopath and the cardiologist. Work is unthinkable.

Like Rob, he has a small total and permanent disability pension and a medical Gold Card from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. But there is no formal acknowledgement that their ailments resulted from working on the de-seal program and both gave up trying to negotiate pension back pay when they became stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire. Neither has been compensated.

“I’ve got on the phone – we’ve all got on the phone – and said, ‘I’m going to top myself unless you sort this out’. But they don’t give a shit,” says Frank.

“I know I might have 10 years left. So it’s time the bastards stopped fucking us around – it’s just chewing up what precious time we’ve got left. [Defence Minister] Robert Hill made that statement last year – he said we’d be compensated. Well, where is it? Our lives are on bloody hold and the frustration and the stress is only making us worse – it’s killing us.”

Later, as Frank Cooper drives me to the train station, he says: “Mate, I’m really worried about Rob. He’s got no one, you know, to support him. No one.”

How did it come to this?

In 1963 the Menzies government ordered 24 General Dynamics F-111 long-range strike-bombers from the United States. Originally due for delivery in 1968, technical problems delayed their delivery until October 1973.

With their heavy payload of bombs and missiles, and their exceptional range – enabling them to fly to most Asian capitals and return to Australia without re-fuelling – they were intended as a deterrent to potentially hostile states in the region. The aircraft owes its range to its enormous fuel capacity. To this day the F-111 – which will be withdrawn from service in 2010 – is effectively a flying fuel tank. But it was defective from the start; the tanks were designed without an internal bladder and soon after delivery, avgas began leaking through the metal seams in the wings and the fuselage.

The same problem had happened in the US and the Americans had perfected a technique known as “deseal/re-seal”, whereby the original sealants were stripped through an elaborate process of chemical application, high-pressure blasting and hand picking with small, sharp instruments, before new, equally toxic, sealant was applied. A cocktail of dozens of toxic chemicals was also used. Perhaps the most infamous was SR51, a desealant and proven carcinogen. While some American service personnel worked on the F-111 tanks, the US military – perhaps sensing a future health scandal – mainly used labour from Latin America.

But for the Australians assigned to DSRS at Amberley, it was backbreaking, claustrophobic, physically and socially isolating, demoralising and potentially deadly work. For dozens of men and boys as young as 17, de-seal was their first posting after finishing apprenticeships in Wagga Wagga. “What was I going to say when they sent me to de-seal: ‘No, sir’?” says Frank Cooper. “Come on, I mean I was 17 years old.”

For months at a time they would work in a makeshift cloth hangar, segregated from the rest of the base due to the foul smell of the chemicals. The technicians would work crouched or lying horizontally in the tanks, covered in ct1emicals and surrounded by fumes, for up to eight hours at a time.

The SR51 corroded their protective gloves in minutes and ate away their flimsy cotton overalls. Cumbersome respiratory gear was rarely worn because it made crawling through the tanks near impossible.

The workers were ordered not to wear jockeys under their overalls because the chemicals would melt them. “So you were sitting there in cotton overalls and this stuff – SR51 and other chemicals – were soaking into your cock and balls through the flimsy overalls – no wonder we’ve got all these sexual problems,” says Rob Solomons.

“You’d lapse into unconsciousness, get dragged out of the tank, get left on the floor to sober up and put back in again.”

Those who complained were malingerers, slackers, even though many quickly developed severe health problems and were treated on the base and at the civilian hospital in nearby Ipswich. If the de-seal program was suspended due to health concerns, the F-111s – whose flight crews were largely oblivious to the suffering of the maintenance crews – wouldn’t fly. This was unthinkable, as the board of inquiry noted.

One de-sealer with serious health problems who refused to re-enter the tanks was sentenced to seven days’ detention. Another was given the particularly onerous task of incinerating the SR51 goop once it congealed. He was constantly covered in the stuff, suffered the pro-forma headaches, dizziness, mood swings and depression, and complained, to no avail.

Even on the base, the de-sealers were ostracised because of their smell. When the SR51 combined with body fat, it produced an odour likened to a mixture of old socks, rotten eggs, sweat, dirt and ammonia. The de-sealers were consequently banned from the base cinema, the mess and the boozer. The smell was impervious to showering. Wives and girlfriends slept in spare beds. Single men staying in barracks were given their own rooms.

All the while the de-sealers’ bodies tried to purge the poison by expelling a stinking yellow grease – a combination of body fat and noxious chemicals. The sludge permanently stained bed sheets and clothing.

“It’s a beautiful piece of machinery – I love the F1-11. It still gives me goose bumps when I hear the afterburners crack up for take-off. It’s a sound you can never get enough of.”

So says Geoff Curl who, at just 42, might pass for a man in his 50s. He’s yet another former de-sealer whose trashed health is the legacy of keeping the F-111 airborne. For more than 20 years he has suffered reflux, chronic bowel problems, arthritis, painful calcium deposits in his hands and shoulders, aching joints, agoraphobia, panic attacks, depression, dangerous mood swings and obsessive compulsive disorder. He has an obvious tremor.

The illnesses have, by his own admission, made him a nightmare to live with.

“I have been violent towards my wife and my kids,” he says. “I was also violent towards my first wife. I see red and I just snap. My wife is fantastic for what she puts up with. She deserves recognition.”

As part of his quest to get compensation, Curl saw numerous doctors at the behest of the military authorities. He maintains they were “doctor shopping” to find a diagnosis that would downplay his illnesses. While he receives a disability pension and his medical costs are covered by a Veteran’s Affairs Gold Card, he has received no compensation.

“The big fear that I have is that my life will be cut short…and [that] will leave my wife and children with very little. This is a real fear for me… I have watched friends of mine, also ex de-sealers, die at early ages of rapidly growing cancers,” he says.

“My quality of life has gone… it’s a life destroyed by the deliberate actions of RAAF officers who, with a blatant disregard for the life of the service personnel involved, chose to ignore all the warnings they had received about the chemicals we were using, and said, ‘Just do it’. Not one of them has apologised. Not one.”

Tony Brady began his apprenticeship two weeks after his 16th birthday. Soon “Mouse”, as he was known because of his tiny frame, was crawling inside the tanks. His size made him perfect for the job.

“I was used to access a lot of the smaller tanks and especially those that required moving past plumbing stilt in place; it often took over an hour of manoeuvring through the inside of the F-111 to access my work area, and longer to get out… I would be [so] stiff and swollen from being confined in such a small area for several hours that it made it difficult to work my way back out. We were required to have LFTs [liver function tests] every three months,” he says.

“One day, shortly after the blood tests, I got a call from medical section and they jokingly asked if I was glowing yellow… it turns out enzymes within my liver were more than 10 times their normal reading and I was taken out of de-seal immediately.”

Brady’s health is ruined. He is ·40. His second marriage recently failed. “My psychiatrists tell me that chemical poisoning has affected my mental health… I have panic disorder, I’m bipolar and suffer anxiety. Physically, my whole respiratory system is shot, I get bronchitis four or five times a year. I have chronic rhinitis and chronic allergic conjunctivitis, and I suffer from long-term infections due to my immune system not being able to handle things.” Brady, like the rest, awaits compensation.

Last year, Defence Minister Robert Hill promised the workers they would be compensated for their exposure to the chemicals – though not, it must be emphasised, for their immense pain and suffering or loss of earnings. The families of the dead stand to get nothing.

On October 26, Hill said he would take a submission to federal cabinet before Christmas recommending a single compensation scheme for the former de-sealers.

Hill said: “Obviously, at the time, the use of those solvents and other materials in those confined spaces was not understood to be dangerous in the way that it’s turned out to be. It’s something we clearly regret and we accept our responsibility to properly support and, where appropriate, compensate those who have suffered.”

For compensation specific to their injuries, the de-sealers must go through the courts (21 of them, including Cooper and Solomons, who are frustrated with waiting for military compensation or Hill’s ex-gratia payment, are suing the federal government, each for $800,000) or apply within the convoluted guidelines of several overlapping military compensation schemes.

There is further mounting anxiety among the former de-sealers that changes to the legislative definitions of impairment for lump-sum Commonwealth claimants injured before July 2004 will make it even harder for them to get compensation.

Under the changes, that which is currently defined as 10% impairment will be re-defined – or effectively downgraded – to a 5% impairment. Those who are not 10% incapacitated will be ineligible for compensation. They’ll also lose the right to sue their employers, even if the employer was negligent.

Ian Fraser, a former de-sealer with a range of serious health problems, now runs the F-111 De-seal Re-seal Support group with the help of Kathleen Henry and Liz Agerbeek, whose seriously ill husband Rudi also worked in the tanks. While they have energetically lobbied the federal government on behalf of the injured and have done much to keep the de-sealers in the pages of the local press in Queensland where most of them still live, Fraser is now calling for a royal commission into the military compensation system.

“OK, so we’ve had the board of inquiry which identified the problem, we’ve had the health study which showed we were injured by the chemicals, the government has promised us compensation, but we’re still waiting. They should be treating this as a humanitarian issue, not a political problem,” he says.

“Blokes are dying [the support group estimates 40 or 50 have died since the board of inquiry] while they wait for compensation and get shuffled from agency to agency and doctor to doctor.

“Enough is enough. We need a royal commission into the way these people have been treated before more are mistreated in the same way. Everyone’s had enough.”

“We need grief counselling because we know all these men are going to die,” Liz Agerbeek says matter-of-factly.

“It’s a mother-child relationship that’s developed between the wives and their men. It’s not healthy. All we do is care for them. We do not have normal healthy relationships… those planes have ruined our lives.

While Curtin University in Western Australia is conducting a lifestyle impact study on the partners of the de-sealers, no quantifiable research has been conducted into the health of their offspring. But anecdotal evidence (supported by postings on the support group’s website www.gooptroop.com) abounds that countless children of the F-111 workers were born with defects.

They include Allan and Kathleen Henry’s son Sean, who was conceived while his father worked in the tanks. He was born with respiratory and learning problems. He also suffers from a rare disease, osteo chrondoma, which causes tumours to grow from the bone.

“When he was a little boy, he effectively grew another bone out of his shoulder blade. He’s had five growths like this removed from his body. As a little boy, he used to ask us what was going on and we’d tell him he was growing spare parts,” Kathleen says.

Doctors give Sean a life expectancy of 30. He’s just turned 21 – a little younger than his father, Allan, when he first crawled into the bowels of an F-111. How cruel it is that the F-111 will be almost 50 when it’s eventually retired from service.

*****

Delay – Deny – Die

Making babies – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

This article was originally published in June 2017 and is being republished as Lunchtime Live on Newstalk 106FM cover IVF & Fertility stories. 

Making babies the hard way.

There is something shameful and deviant about sitting in a small public toilet in a busy public hospital masturbating. Other people want to use the toilet, you are trying to be as quick and as quiet as possible but you have a job to do and you cant leave the cubicle until it is done.

Welcome to the glamorous world of infertility. I was married a number of years at this stage and my wife was starting to worry that pregnancy wasn’t happening for us. She had established contact with a maternity hospital over her worries. She was given a clean bill of health and now it was my turn and this started with a semen analysis to establish if I had a sufficient sperm count and also to establish the health & motility of these.

I presented at small hatch in in one of Dublin’s maternity hospitals where I was given a container, verified my name, address and DOB and was sent on my way to find a free toilet cubical where I could “produce” a sample.

After the job was done I returned the sample to the hatch where I was told that results would be available within the hour, not to me but to my wife’s gynaecologist. So the next day I rang his office for the results and was told that he couldn’t fit me in for an appointment for at least 3 weeks. This pissed me off greatly as I knew a semen analysis is an “eyeball” count and I wasn’t too keen to hang around for weeks awaiting the result.

I sought the consultant’s number and left a message for him to call me back to put me out of my misery. He called me back and confirmed what I had started to suspect…I had a serious fertility problem. A healthy sperm count was between 50 and 100 million sperm per m/l and mine was only 1 million. Considering that the average intercourse attempts before pregnancy in a healthy couple was 1 in 4 attempts my odds of creating a natural pregnancy were one in 400. Essentially it could take 33 years of monthly attempts for success not 4 months.

And there was worse news to come when we finally did sit and meet with the gynaecologist. Of those 1 million sperm that I did have over 90% were immotile or defective in some way so now my odds had lengthened to a 1 in 4000 chance of pregnancy. Now being fairly certain that we didn’t have over 300 years of monthly sex to create a family it became readily apparent we needed the intervention of fertility specialists. The gynaecologist told us our only option was ICSI a particularly expensive specialist form of IVF. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection is a procedure in which a single sperm is injected directly into an egg.

In that meeting with the gynaecologist I felt numb and totally drop kicked. I had reached the stage in my life where I wanted to become a father. The previous summer I had been on a rocky beach in the West of Ireland with my wife, her sister and two nieces. I remember walking along the beach with my 1 & 3 year old nieces, lifting over rocks to see the creepy crawly creatures under them, the subsequent delight of the kids and had thought “yep I could be a dad” .

As you can imagine my wife was utterly distraught at the news that we could not have children naturally. She is very good with children and had a much stronger instinct and desires for parenthood than me. The gynaecologist said that considering our ages (early thirties) and the severity of my infertility that we had no time to waste and he recommended Clane IVF clinic.

Starting IVF involves a lot of rigmarole. Further medicals, testing & analysis, and also regular tests for STDs such as hepatitis & HIV in order to protect their staff &  maintain a quality trail.

And of course during this build up our family and circle of friends are popping out sprogs like there is no tomorrow. When you find out you can’t have children naturally you start to notice every single pregnant woman you pass. Everyone is pregnant except you guys.

I do recall a dinner we went to in a friend’s house where there were 3 couples present. The host couple already had a child and over the course of the dinner the other couple declared “they had an announcement” they were expecting their first child. Obviously they were bursting with pride & happiness and we were very happy for them but immediately I could sense that my wife was distressed but “holding it together”.

After the meal was over and we said our goodbyes my wife broke down as soon as she got inside our car. It is unfortunately a reality for childless couples that other people’s good news can cause them pain. I suppose it invokes a panic that perhaps the IVF will never work and leads to a fear that we would never have “an announcement” of our own.

Eventually we received our prescription for the IVF medication which mainly injectable hormones for my wife. Although I was the one with the fertility problem all the treatment of egg production, egg harvesting and embryo transferral was naturally enough focused on my wife. She carried the can 100% for my infertility.

So off we skipped with our prescription like kids to a sweet shop, we could hardly contain our excitement. My wife required daily injections and I was the injector. Initially we were very giddy and one of our biggest problems was that one or other of us would get into a fit of giggles. It is not very easy to give an injection when one or other of you is shaking like a leaf from laughter. I became very skilled at giving the injections and on more than one occasion managed to give an injection that my wife didn’t even notice.

Part of the treatment involved regular inter-vaginal ultrasound monitoring to observe and monitor the growth of eggs. Normally a woman produces one fertile egg follicle per month alternating ovaries but during IVF the fertility drugs promote Controlled Ovarian Hyper-stimulation whereby a larger number of ripened egg follicles are produced. This is in order to harvest as many eggs as possible so that a number of embryos can be created. This increases your odds of success, IVF is very much numbers game.

I accompanied my wife to the first scan and everything was hunky dory so when some work commitments happened to coincide with the next scheduled scan my wife was happy to travel to the clinic on her own as we just saw the scan as routine and had no reason to fear anything was going amiss. So she headed down to Clane on her own and about an hour later I got a call from my wife who was sobbing uncontrollably at the other end. The nurse performing the scan had ultrasound had inserted the probe and then had gone white, she called the doctor urgently and he went white. It turned out my wife had started Hyper Ovulation Stimulation Syndrome and the cycle had to be stopped immediately.

So there and then our current chances of becoming parents evaporated. Many people will talk about the emotional roller-coaster that is IVF but we never paid much heed. We made a serious mistake and that was we never contemplated failure. We only contemplated success, failure wasn’t even on our mind, so when that failure did come we were totally unprepared. It was like the chair had been kicked out from underneath us.

As mentioned IVF essentially involves Controlled Ovarian Hyper-stimulation but Hyper Ovulation Stimulation Syndrome is a very dangerous condition where the woman reacts “too well” to the fertility drugs and produces too many ovarian follicles and is at risk of essentially an internal overdose of hormones leading to respiratory, cardiac or renal problems and can be fatal.

So getting over this HOSS involved stopping treatment and then careful monitoring to make sure the threat dissipated, we then needed my wife’s regular ovulation cycle to get back on track and as you can imagine this took a number of months. We found Clane IVF clinic to be very professional, very supportive and always felt they had our best interests to the fore and would not rush treatment cycles.

For many patients of IVF, the first cycle really is like the zeroing shots at range practice. It allows the IVF professionals get an idea to the responsiveness to IVF drugs of one woman’s body compared to another’s.

For our second cycle the IVF injection dose was adjusted and we made some significant adjustments to our expectations. This time we only contemplated failure and decided that success would be a bonus. This approach we believed would protect us somewhat from disappointment if the cycle failed again.

This cycle however went well and a date was set for February 2008 for the harvesting procedure. Again this involves an inter-vaginal ultrasound probe just this time with a retractable lance that is able to burst each follicle and extract the egg. At the time the IVF clinic was in a portacabins at Clane General Hospital and there was a small 3 bed-roomed ward next to the theatre which was connected via a hatch to the Embryology laboratory.

So my wife got gowned up and was sedated for the procedure as I waited on my own in the small ward. Eventually my wife was brought back into the ward in a wheelchair, bleeding and with tears running down her face and streaming down her neck. For me this was an extremely low point of my life. I felt extremely guilty because this was my fault, I was infertile not my wife. If I was functional she would not have needed to go through this.

So I’m sitting beside my wife who is upset and confused because of the sedation I’m trying to comfort her and then one of the IVF nurses called in to us to tell us the egg harvesting had been a success and that now it was “my turn”. I was handed a small sample container and had to go into a room I had nicknamed “the milking parlour” to have the most important wank of my life. If you pardon my porn reference this was the “money shot”, I had to produce and my aim had to be impeccable.

Once I provided the sample it was handed over immediately to the embryologist and he went and worked his scientific magic of ICSI. IVF is now a very well understood procedure but many people are a bit horrified when they realise the scientific & medical technology was adapted from the livestock industry.

So I believe that 18 eggs were harvested and treated with ICSI. This resulted in 15 successfully fertilised eggs. We opted for a service that matured the zygotes a bit longer in the lab. While this was more expensive it also improved the odds of success when transferred.

I think it was 2 weeks later that we went back for the eggs to be transferred. To improve the chances of success Clane transferred 2 zygotes in what is a relatively straightforward procedure and then it was a waiting game for 2 weeks until the first blood test.

Those 2 weeks are a time of huge anticipation. Do you cheat and try a home pregnancy test or do you wait until the official, higher accuracy, blood pregnancy test. So we waited until the official test and you have to then wait for a phone call from the lab to give you the good or bad news. Like I said we had dampened down expectations but it was till nerve racking.

When the news came it was positive, we were going to be parents. Naturally we were overjoyed and we kicked into “nesting mode” and what turned out to be an uneventful and normal pregnancy.

Sean, our first child,  was born in October 2009 and when I first set eyes on him I became very emotional. Tears came out of nowhere as I sobbed uncontrollably looking at this helpless little bundle swaddled in a hospital blanket, blinking and yawning and wondering where he was.

We still had some frozen embryos and so a year or so later we decided to try for another cycle. This time we chose to transfer only a single embryo as a year or so into being parents neither of us fancied the thoughts of being parents of twins. But again, we made the mistake of not contemplating failure, again we thought everything would work like it did the previous time. So cycle 3 was a failure but as well as that all along the different phases of harvesting, fertilisation, transfer, freezing and thawing there was an attrition rate and so after cycle 3 we only had 2 fertilised zygotes left.

Again, after a failed cycle my wife needed a number of months for her menstrual cycle to get back to normal before we could go for the 4th cycle attempt. We took the decision to transfer our last 2 remaining embryos taking the chance on twins rather than the expense of a further cycle. Like in the case of our first pregnancy only one embryo took and in May 2012 our second son Ciaran was born.

Both boys are now in school with one in Junior Infants and the other in First Class of our local Educate Together. Both are healthy fun loving kind kids with a love of the outdoors and both have a curious mind and 99% of the time they are a pure joy to raise. The thought always fascinates me as to how would their personalities be different if they had been transferred in the opposite order. Technically they are twins being conceived on the same day but just born over 2 years apart.

IVF was an expensive undertaking and we spent many tens of thousands of euro. I am conscious of many of my Irish Army Air Corps colleagues with fertility difficulties remain childless because either the IVF technology was not mature enough at the time to deal with their level of infertility or because they simply could not afford the cost of the procedure.

I have no doubt that my fertility trouble stemmed from my working environment in the Irish Army Air Corps at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel. The working conditions were horrendous,  we had no chemical training whatsoever, we were issued with no PPE whatsoever and the buildings that housed the chemicals I worked with were asbestos clad brick sheds built by the British in 1915-1918 and were unfit for purpose as they had utterly inadequate ventilation.

Chemicals we worked with in Baldonnel were exceptionally dangerous and were listed as Carcinogens, Mutagens and Teratogens and a number of chemicals in daily use were reproductive toxins and warned of harm to fertility as well as the capacity to cause heritable genetic harm.

My wife and I are definitely one of the luckier couples from Baldonnel, many couples have not been able to have children and will move into an old age that will be lonelier as a result. It is one thing if you don’t want a family but to want a family and be denied it because your employer didn’t give a damn about Health & Safety is galling.

Worse still I believe are the serving and former personnel who have managed to have children but whose children have suffered serious physical & mental disabilities due to their parents unprotected chemical exposure during their service in the Irish Army Air Corps. Many of these chemicals have the capacity not only to harm sperm, eggs and the developing child but also to harm the male &  female reproductive organs increasing the chance of disabled children long after leaving the service.

Infertility is common and on the increase but the levels of infertility or fertility difficulties experienced by male personnel in the most chemically contaminated workshops in Baldonnel appears anecdotally to be as high as 50%.

This is another health effect of the chemical Health & Safety failings that needs full investigation by competent medical & scientific bodies.

The tiniest trickle of blood – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

The tiniest trickle of blood

My father was an aircraft technician in the Air Corps at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel for 21 years. During his time there he worked on a variety of aircraft and worked with an assortment of chemicals and sprays often without, as he said himself, even glove protection.

Over that time he developed severe psoriasis on his body, but in particular his hands and legs. This resulted in intense itch and pain and a daily routine of medication and treatment of the various lesions on his legs and also a stay in St. Bricin’s Hospital. It was not until a combination of appointments with a renowned Traditional Medical Herbalist, coupled with his retirement from the Air Corps that improvements began. This psoriasis, while appearing at a much slighter level during his life, never appeared to the same extent after leaving Baldonnel.

My mother passed away in 2009, and since then Dad lived with my wife and I, and subsequently, our two daughters. He adored his family and his granddaughters. He also really enjoyed an active and healthy life, learning to swim, regularly walking, going dancing, and eating very healthily. He liked his few social pints but gave up smoking before his first granddaughter was born eight years ago. He also had regular full check-ups with his GP.

In December 2013, while Dad was feeling very well, in great form, he spotted the tiniest trickle of blood in his urine. After attending his GP and a urologist, it was confirmed that he had renal cancer, which had completely taken over one of his kidneys and indeed had also spread to his lungs. Treatment was possible but immediate: he would need to have his kidney removed and a tablet form of chemotherapy would need to be taken for the rest of his life. Thankfully medical advances had developed this treatment, otherwise he would not have survived.

Almost two years passed and Dad had little or no side-effects to his treatment other than his dark hair turning grey overnight. He maintained his life as it was, keeping up his hobbies and his active lifestyle, as well as continuing his breaks to Lanzarote. Unfortunately in November 2015, things began to change and his body rejected the tablet. He became very ill with a litany of mystery illnesses that befuddled doctors but, miraculously, he managed to survive and came home. However, he spent his New Year’s Day in A&E, complaining of intense pain in his back. On examination and scanning, it was found that he had a broken vertebrae due to cancer spreading to his back. Again, thankfully it was in the position that it was, as it was treatable and would not end up with him in a wheelchair. Inserting rods either side of his spine meant that he would walk again.

The last months of his life were a mix of regular check-ups, consultant appointments, progress and setbacks. It was a roller-coaster of emotions where his unyielding positivity was tested repeatedly but never left him. 

It would have been interesting to see if his background in Baldonnel could have informed his treatment, or if indeed anything could have been done to prevent his disease. However such thoughts are merely conjecture and would distract from the magnificent memories we hold of a man who touched so many hearts and leaves behind a legacy fitting for such a character.

Skin Cancer in Irish Air Corps personnel – Basal Cell Carcinoma

Photo of BCC on the leg of a former Air Corps employee who worked daily with Ardrox 666. This person also has cancerous growths on his arm & scalp.

Basal Cell Carcinoma’s are abnormal, uncontrolled growths or lesions that arise in the skin’s basal cells, which line the deepest layer of the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin). BCCs often look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps, or scars and are usually caused by a combination of cumulative and intense, occasional sun exposure.

Both long-term sun exposure over your lifetime and occasional extended, intense exposure (typically leading to sunburn) combine to cause damage that can lead to BCC. Almost all BCCs occur on parts of the body excessively exposed to the sun — especially the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back.

On rare occasions, however, tumors develop on unexposed areas. In a few cases, contact with arsenic, exposure to radiation, open sores that resist healing, chronic inflammatory skin conditions, and complications of burns, scars, infections, vaccinations, or even tattoos are contributing factors.

It is not possible to pinpoint a precise, single cause for a specific tumor, especially one found on a sun-protected area of the body or in an extremely young individual.

Skin cancer (non-melanoma)
Causes grouped by strength of evidence
Strong  Good  Limited 
arsenic aromatic amines acrylamide
benzo(a)pyrene arsenical pesticides vinyl chloride
coal tars benz(a)anthracene
ionizing radiation creosotes
mineral oils dibenz(a,h)anthracene
shale oils dimethyl benzanthracene
UV radiation ethylene oxide
methylcholanthrene
oryzalin
PAHs
pesticides

We are aware of a number of current & former Air Corps technicians who have developed Basal Cell Carcinoma. It is interesting to note that there is good evidence to link creosotes with Basal Cell Carcinoma. Creosotes are a component chemical of Ardrox 666.

However, Basal Cell Carcinoma is a very common cancer and so the occurrence may not be unusual.

Key point as with almost all of the illnesses suffered by Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors is of course vigilance. Don’t delay going to your doctor.

Making babies – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

Making babies the hard way.

There is something shameful and deviant about sitting in a small public toilet in a busy public hospital masturbating. Other people want to use the toilet, you are trying to be as quick and as quiet as possible but you have a job to do and you cant leave the cubicle until it is done.

Welcome to the glamorous world of infertility. I was married a number of years at this stage and my wife was starting to worry that pregnancy wasn’t happening for us. She had established contact with a maternity hospital over her worries. She was given a clean bill of health and now it was my turn and this started with a semen analysis to establish if I had a sufficient sperm count and also to establish the health & motility of these.

I presented at small hatch in in one of Dublin’s maternity hospitals where I was given a container, verified my name, address and DOB and was sent on my way to find a free toilet cubical where I could “produce” a sample.

After the job was done I returned the sample to the hatch where I was told that results would be available within the hour, not to me but to my wife’s gynaecologist. So the next day I rang his office for the results and was told that he couldn’t fit me in for an appointment for at least 3 weeks. This pissed me off greatly as I knew a semen analysis is an “eyeball” count and I wasn’t too keen to hang around for weeks awaiting the result.

I sought the consultant’s number and left a message for him to call me back to put me out of my misery. He called me back and confirmed what I had started to suspect…I had a serious fertility problem. A healthy sperm count was between 50 and 100 million sperm per m/l and mine was only 1 million. Considering that the average intercourse attempts before pregnancy in a healthy couple was 1 in 4 attempts my odds of creating a natural pregnancy were one in 400. Essentially it could take 33 years of monthly attempts for success not 4 months.

And there was worse news to come when we finally did sit and meet with the gynaecologist. Of those 1 million sperm that I did have over 90% were immotile or defective in some way so now my odds had lengthened to a 1 in 4000 chance of pregnancy. Now being fairly certain that we didn’t have over 300 years of monthly sex to create a family it became readily apparent we needed the intervention of fertility specialists. The gynaecologist told us our only option was ICSI a particularly expensive specialist form of IVF. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection is a procedure in which a single sperm is injected directly into an egg.

In that meeting with the gynaecologist I felt numb and totally drop kicked. I had reached the stage in my life where I wanted to become a father. The previous summer I had been on a rocky beach in the West of Ireland with my wife, her sister and two nieces. I remember walking along the beach with my 1 & 3 year old nieces, lifting over rocks to see the creepy crawly creatures under them, the subsequent delight of the kids and had thought “yep I could be a dad” .

As you can imagine my wife was utterly distraught at the news that we could not have children naturally. She is very good with children and had a much stronger instinct and desires for parenthood than me. The gynaecologist said that considering our ages (early thirties) and the severity of my infertility that we had no time to waste and he recommended Clane IVF clinic.

Starting IVF involves a lot of rigmarole. Further medicals, testing & analysis, and also regular tests for STDs such as hepatitis & HIV in order to protect their staff &  maintain a quality trail.

And of course during this build up our family and circle of friends are popping out sprogs like there is no tomorrow. When you find out you can’t have children naturally you start to notice every single pregnant woman you pass. Everyone is pregnant except you guys.

I do recall a dinner we went to in a friend’s house where there were 3 couples present. The host couple already had a child and over the course of the dinner the other couple declared “they had an announcement” they were expecting their first child. Obviously they were bursting with pride & happiness and we were very happy for them but immediately I could sense that my wife was distressed but “holding it together”.

After the meal was over and we said our goodbyes my wife broke down as soon as she got inside our car. It is unfortunately a reality for childless couples that other people’s good news can cause them pain. I suppose it invokes a panic that perhaps the IVF will never work and leads to a fear that we would never have “an announcement” of our own.

Eventually we received our prescription for the IVF medication which mainly injectable hormones for my wife. Although I was the one with the fertility problem all the treatment of egg production, egg harvesting and embryo transferral was naturally enough focused on my wife. She carried the can 100% for my infertility.

So off we skipped with our prescription like kids to a sweet shop, we could hardly contain our excitement. My wife required daily injections and I was the injector. Initially we were very giddy and one of our biggest problems was that one or other of us would get into a fit of giggles. It is not very easy to give an injection when one or other of you is shaking like a leaf from laughter. I became very skilled at giving the injections and on more than one occasion managed to give an injection that my wife didn’t even notice.

Part of the treatment involved regular inter-vaginal ultrasound monitoring to observe and monitor the growth of eggs. Normally a woman produces one fertile egg follicle per month alternating ovaries but during IVF the fertility drugs promote Controlled Ovarian Hyper-stimulation whereby a larger number of ripened egg follicles are produced. This is in order to harvest as many eggs as possible so that a number of embryos can be created. This increases your odds of success, IVF is very much numbers game.

I accompanied my wife to the first scan and everything was hunky dory so when some work commitments happened to coincide with the next scheduled scan my wife was happy to travel to the clinic on her own as we just saw the scan as routine and had no reason to fear anything was going amiss. So she headed down to Clane on her own and about an hour later I got a call from my wife who was sobbing uncontrollably at the other end. The nurse performing the scan had ultrasound had inserted the probe and then had gone white, she called the doctor urgently and he went white. It turned out my wife had started Hyper Ovulation Stimulation Syndrome and the cycle had to be stopped immediately.

So there and then our current chances of becoming parents evaporated. Many people will talk about the emotional roller-coaster that is IVF but we never paid much heed. We made a serious mistake and that was we never contemplated failure. We only contemplated success, failure wasn’t even on our mind, so when that failure did come we were totally unprepared. It was like the chair had been kicked out from underneath us.

As mentioned IVF essentially involves Controlled Ovarian Hyper-stimulation but Hyper Ovulation Stimulation Syndrome is a very dangerous condition where the woman reacts “too well” to the fertility drugs and produces too many ovarian follicles and is at risk of essentially an internal overdose of hormones leading to respiratory, cardiac or renal problems and can be fatal.

So getting over this HOSS involved stopping treatment and then careful monitoring to make sure the threat dissipated, we then needed my wife’s regular ovulation cycle to get back on track and as you can imagine this took a number of months. We found Clane IVF clinic to be very professional, very supportive and always felt they had our best interests to the fore and would not rush treatment cycles.

For many patients of IVF, the first cycle really is like the zeroing shots at range practice. It allows the IVF professionals get an idea to the responsiveness to IVF drugs of one woman’s body compared to another’s.

For our second cycle the IVF injection dose was adjusted and we made some significant adjustments to our expectations. This time we only contemplated failure and decided that success would be a bonus. This approach we believed would protect us somewhat from disappointment if the cycle failed again.

This cycle however went well and a date was set for February 2008 for the harvesting procedure. Again this involves an inter-vaginal ultrasound probe just this time with a retractable lance that is able to burst each follicle and extract the egg. At the time the IVF clinic was in a portacabins at Clane General Hospital and there was a small 3 bed-roomed ward next to the theatre which was connected via a hatch to the Embryology laboratory.

So my wife got gowned up and was sedated for the procedure as I waited on my own in the small ward. Eventually my wife was brought back into the ward in a wheelchair, bleeding and with tears running down her face and streaming down her neck. For me this was an extremely low point of my life. I felt extremely guilty because this was my fault, I was infertile not my wife. If I was functional she would not have needed to go through this.

So I’m sitting beside my wife who is upset and confused because of the sedation I’m trying to comfort her and then one of the IVF nurses called in to us to tell us the egg harvesting had been a success and that now it was “my turn”. I was handed a small sample container and had to go into a room I had nicknamed “the milking parlour” to have the most important wank of my life. If you pardon my porn reference this was the “money shot”, I had to produce and my aim had to be impeccable.

Once I provided the sample it was handed over immediately to the embryologist and he went and worked his scientific magic of ICSI. IVF is now a very well understood procedure but many people are a bit horrified when they realise the scientific & medical technology was adapted from the livestock industry.

So I believe that 18 eggs were harvested and treated with ICSI. This resulted in 15 successfully fertilised eggs. We opted for a service that matured the zygotes a bit longer in the lab. While this was more expensive it also improved the odds of success when transferred.

I think it was 2 weeks later that we went back for the eggs to be transferred. To improve the chances of success Clane transferred 2 zygotes in what is a relatively straightforward procedure and then it was a waiting game for 2 weeks until the first blood test.

Those 2 weeks are a time of huge anticipation. Do you cheat and try a home pregnancy test or do you wait until the official, higher accuracy, blood pregnancy test. So we waited until the official test and you have to then wait for a phone call from the lab to give you the good or bad news. Like I said we had dampened down expectations but it was till nerve racking.

When the news came it was positive, we were going to be parents. Naturally we were overjoyed and we kicked into “nesting mode” and what turned out to be an uneventful and normal pregnancy.

Sean, our first child,  was born in October 2009 and when I first set eyes on him I became very emotional. Tears came out of nowhere as I sobbed uncontrollably looking at this helpless little bundle swaddled in a hospital blanket, blinking and yawning and wondering where he was.

We still had some frozen embryos and so a year or so later we decided to try for another cycle. This time we chose to transfer only a single embryo as a year or so into being parents neither of us fancied the thoughts of being parents of twins. But again, we made the mistake of not contemplating failure, again we thought everything would work like it did the previous time. So cycle 3 was a failure but as well as that all along the different phases of harvesting, fertilisation, transferral, freezing and thawing there was an attrition rate and so after cycle 3 we only had 2 fertilised zygotes left.

Again, after a failed cycle my wife needed a number of months for her menstrual cycle to get back to normal before we could go for the 4th cycle attempt. We took the decision to transfer our last 2 remaining embryos taking the chance on twins rather than the expense of a further cycle. Like in the case of our first pregnancy only one embryo took and in May 2012 our second son Ciaran was born.

Both boys are now in school with one in Junior Infants and the other in First Class of our local Educate Together. Both are healthy fun loving kind kids with a love of the outdoors and both have a curious mind and 99% of the time they are a pure joy to raise. The thought always fascinates me as to how would their personalities be different if they had been transferred in the opposite order. Technically they are twins being conceived on the same day but just born over 2 years apart.

IVF was an expensive undertaking and we spent many tens of thousands of euro. I am conscious of many of my Irish Army Air Corps colleagues with fertility difficulties remain childless because either the IVF technology was not mature enough at the time to deal with their level of infertility or because they simply could not afford the cost of the procedure.

I have no doubt that my fertility trouble stemmed from my working environment in the Irish Army Air Corps at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel. The working conditions were horrendous,  we had no chemical training whatsoever, we were issued with no PPE whatsoever and the buildings that housed the chemicals I worked with were asbestos clad brick sheds built by the British in 1915-1918 and were unfit for purpose as they had utterly inadequate ventilation.

Chemicals we worked with in Baldonnel were exceptionally dangerous and were listed as Carcinogens, Mutagens and Teratogens and a number of chemicals in daily use were reproductive toxins and warned of harm to fertility as well as the capacity to cause heritable genetic harm.

My wife and I are definitely one of the luckier couples from Baldonnel, many couples have not been able to have children and will move into an old age that will be lonelier as a result. It is one thing if you don’t want a family but to want a family and be denied it because your employer didn’t give a damn about Health & Safety is galling.

Worse still I believe are the serving and former personnel who have managed to have children but whose children have suffered serious physical & mental disabilities due to their parents unprotected chemical exposure during their service in the Irish Army Air Corps. Many of these chemicals have the capacity not only to harm sperm, eggs and the developing child but also to harm the male &  female reproductive organs increasing the chance of disabled children long after leaving the service.

Infertility is common and on the increase but the levels of infertility or fertility difficulties experienced by male personnel in the most chemically contaminated workshops in Baldonnel appears anecdotally to be as high as 50%.

This is another health effect of the chemical Health & Safety failings that needs full investigation by competent medical & scientific bodies.

Irish Army Air Corps Toxic Chemical Exposure – Survivors List of Demands

The priorities of the Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors is firstly to prevent further unnecessary loss of life amongst survivors and secondly to improve the quality of life of survivors by reducing unnecessary suffering.

Both the Royal Australian Air Force & the Armed forces of the Netherlands have offered templates as to how to approach unfortunate workplace chemical exposure issues with competence, fairness, justice & urgency.

We urge that all responsible organisations in the state such as political parties, government departments and the Defence Forces to work together to commit the state to provide the following for survivors as an ex. gratia scheme with no admission of liability by the state.

Current & future legal cases should be allowed to take their natural course unhindered whilst all survivors are cared for equally by the state.

Read more about our demands below.

Illnesses suffered by just a single person from Irish Air Corps

Below is my list of illness since 2000. Some of which were diagnosed then subsequently deemed a misdiagnosis which was then referred to as part of a combination of conditions related auto immune system disease.

I have been told I have never been text book in my symptoms for these various conditions but have shown some or all symptoms at various stages in the past 17 years which can flare up at any stage.

I have also failed on all current immunosuppressive drugs except for the latest injection I am receiving but only time will tell if this will last

Yours sincerely

 Former member of No3 Support Wing


Prior to joining the Irish Army Air Corps this person was an accomplished athlete and represented the Defence Forces and his unit at many running competitions. The above illnesses started to occur approximately 1 year after joining Heli Wing.

Furthermore and as has happened in other cases this person was treated as a malingerer and actively haunted by Air Corps management until he went on his ticket. Essentially he was constructively dismissed by the Irish Army Air Corps after they had made him seriously ill.

Silver Bullet – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

Finding a silver bullet would be a good thing.

It would be great to get a the definite answer or even to establish why I am suffering in silence, embarrassed by years of sudden uncontrollable bowel issues, breathing issues & aching to the bones even after the slightest bit of manual work. Looking at other men your age running and exercising every day without a hint of tiredness.

When you say to your family that you have no energy to do basic household maintenance work you really mean it and are not being lazy or when you suddenly seem to enter a dark mood and depressive state for no reason.

Have ticked a lot of the boxes for the range of “unexplained symptoms” listed so far and I am really hoping that they are not caused by the workplace environment & chemical products handled over the years. Because it creates a real daily worry as to what the future holds. What quality of life will I have if some of the more serious illnesses that colleagues have suffered eventually get a grip on me!

See the known list of illnesses suffered by Air Corp Chemical Abuse survivors below.

Blind Date – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

For a very long time now both my mother and my sister have been encouraging me to start writing a blog. ‘Tell people your story,’ they said. I never felt I’d anything interesting to write. Well my mother pointed out something interesting today. She said ‘it’s been twenty years since the date your eyesight went’. I never really thought of myself as getting old, but twenty years is a long time. How much has changed.

Back in 1996, I was 18 and in my second year as an apprentice with the Irish Air Corps. I had joined up when I was 16 and with typical teenage brashness I thought I was the shit. And sure why not. All I’d ever wanted to do was serve. After a youth watching Rambo, Top Gun and Hot Shots on an endless loop, I had my whole career planned out. Alas it was not to be. Over a period of a few weeks around March/April 1996 I started messing up a lot; maps upside down, knocking over pints, not being able to read my writing, not saluting officers, that sort of thing. I was also extremely fatigued.

I still remember the first trip to the medical aid post. ‘Put your hand over your right eye and read the chart,’ said Commandant Collins. Not a problem: Z W T 1 3 7 q e y. Easy. ‘Now cover up your left eye and read the chart’. ‘OK’, I said, ‘Can you put the chart back up please’. After that the fun and games started. After several trips to the medical aid post I found myself on rotation in and out of the Eye and Ear. I had every type of blood and eye test done. Along with an MRI I was being tested initially for a brain tumor and diabetes and then a whole rake of other conditions I’d never heard of at the time. They hadn’t a clue what was wrong. All this time the sight in my right eye was getting worse and the sight in my left eye decided to start packing it in. It’s hard to describe. Blurry cloudy vision. Loss of sharpness with your central vision effected the most. If you look at someone straight on from about a meter away, you can make out their hands and legs but they’ve no head.  Beyond a meter people become more like blurry colours moving around.

Although a total pain in the ass and not exactly what I wanted to be doing with my life, these trips to the Eye and Ear were entertaining nonetheless. As nobody knew what was wrong every doctor and med student wanted to poke around my eyeballs. My friends from the Air Corps who would accompany me on these trips would get rather jealous as a young pretty female med student would bend over and look into my eyes with some strange instrument. Then again they had a different view.

On another occasion though I was on my own. So what happens is you’re put in a big waiting room and given a raffle ticket. ‘Take a seat your number will be called’. From what I remember I was the youngest person there. Everyone else seemed to me at that time to be ancient. You have to really picture this scenario. It’s a room full of people with bad sight or bad hearing or because of their age, both.  A voice bellows from the top of the room ‘No. 17’ (it could have been any number I can’t remember). ‘Hmm’ I think to myself, ‘it might have been handy if I’d asked what number my ticket was’. There’s a pause, a bit of shuffling and mumbling. Half the people can’t see their tickets and the other half are asking ‘did someone say something’. ‘No. 17’ the voice from the top of the room bellows again. I get a nudge on the arm from an old lady beside me: ‘Excuse me son what number ticket do I have’. Absolutely comical.

On one of these trips to the Eye and Ear to get poked at again by so called experts who’d no idea what was wrong I was sitting in the waiting room when I heard a nurse talking to an older man. I was positive I recognised his voice. Getting up I went to the other end of the corridor. ‘Uncle Danny,’ I said, ‘Is that you’. (Uncle Danny was my mam’s uncle). ‘It is’, he said, ‘who’s that’. ‘It’s Wes,’ I said, ‘there’s something wrong with my sight. What are you here for?’ ‘My sights going too’, he said with a worried sigh. Not being able to see each other clearly we both could tell we were looking at each other and thinking ‘what the …’ The nurse was thinking the same. She went off to get the doctor.

With the extended family brought in we discover we have a condition called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON). At the time there was no test in Ireland because it is a genetic condition. A cousin of my grandmother had been clinically diagnosed with mutation 11778. After we told the doctor about LHON I still remember the doctor taking down a book and blowing off the dust. (Or at least that’s my version of the account). ‘Yes that’s what you have. Some of the cells in the optic nerve are dead and the signal isn’t going to the brain. It’s a very rare condition’. Personally I’d have preferred to have won the lotto.

**********

As mentioned in the above story Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy involves genetic mutations that can lead to blindness through optical nerve mitochondrial depowering. One very interesting aspect to this disease is that only a minority of persons with the mutation actually suffer blindness. The breakdown by sex is that only 10% of females and only 40% of males with the mutation go blind.

For years the “trigger” for the blindness was unknown but in the past 20 years a number of trigger chemicals have been identified. One of these chemicals is an Alkane known as nHexane and it is important to note that this chemicals was involved in the intoxication & injury of 2 Air Corps technical personnel in 2015 that lead to the eventual Health & Safety Authority investigation.

Furthermore the neurotoxicity of nHexane is enhanced significantly in the presence of Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK). This is another chemical that was also used without any precaution for decades in the Irish Army Air Corps.

It is important to also note that the person in the story above went blind within two weeks of starting work in Engine Repair Flight (ERF). As an Air Corps Apprentice he only had to spend 10 weeks work experience in this location which were, unfortunately for him and others, life changing and career ending. ERF and its associated Non Destructive Testing (NDT) workshop (photographed below in 2007), were possibly one of the most chemically toxic workplaces anywhere in Ireland.

This workshop was found to be 3½ times over allowable limits for Dichloromethane (DCM) in 1995 but personnel were not warned and it was left operational for a further 12 years. During that time there were at least 5 adult deaths, at least 1 child deaths and and at least 2 children born with severe genetic mutations that we believe were associated with chemical exposures in this workshop alone. Chemicals in use were carcinogenic, mutagenic & teratogenic.

The engineering officer who commissioned these air quality tests is still serving in the Irish Army Air Corps in a senior role as is the engineering officer who ordered the test results destroyed in later years.

The Athlete I Married – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

My husband joined the Irish Army Air Corps as an apprentice in 1991, he was 17 years old. He was so young in fact he was legally classed as a child soldier which required his parents to sign away their legal guardianship to the Minister for Defence. Prior to joining the Air Corps he was one of Donegal’s top junior athletes.

I met him in 1992 while he was still living in in the apprentice hostel accommodation at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel. At that stage he had already represented the Air Corps at athletics and was a regular member of their winning Business House League cross country team. At 18 years of he was running a 10k in 31 minutes and a 5k in 15 minutes. He was full of life and I remember meeting this force of energy. He was very funny and had more energy than I thought possible in one individual. Fast forward to 2017 and now aged 43 he can now only manage a 5k in his mobility scooter.

A year after I met him he graduated from the Air Corps Apprentice School and moved “up camp” to Avionics Squadron where within a few short months he became very emotional and started to suffer from extreme anxiety. He went, in a short space of time, from being a huge force of energy to an unpredictable troubled man and that is how he has remained.

Through 20 years of marriage and 24 of the 25 years that I have known and loved him I still feel lucky enough that he hasn’t lost all of his love of life. But although he is losing more of his physical ability each day he still manages a smile and he still loves me and the children. He still wants to be energetic for me and his family but as his list of medical problems get progressively worse his driving force gets more and more depleted.

24 years ago his medical problems started with anxiety & stress then a sudden loss of all pigmentation in his right leg & groin area where all the hair went white and all his skin pale after a tubbing incident with an unknown chemical. There is still a visible line with two different skin tones each side. Later followed stomach ulcers and Crohn’s like bowel problems which are a constant source of embarrassment.

Next started the nerve damage, pins & needles, loss of sense of touch in arms & legs and eventually sudden excruciating pain in random parts of the body as bad as a toothache but 1,000 times worse.

Then came the “in your head” diagnosis. The vast majority of Irish doctors & consultants simply have no experience of industrial diseases but they all have a deep need to “pigeonhole” and move on. As my husband got progressively worse his GP was convinced that he was simply malingering and suggested that he see a psychiatrist.

After suffering at the mercy of an unsympathetic Irish medical establishment for many years he finally discovered a specialist in Scandinavia who invited him over for tests. He has been diagnosed with Stage 3 Chronic Solvent Induced Encephalopathy. Stage 3 is the top of a 1 to 3 scale and means that damage has reached as far as his internal organs.

He has suffered Thermoregulation Vasoconstrictor failure, this means his body cannot control his body temperature, he sweats when he is cold, shivers when he is hot and every step in between.

And it goes on, he has suffered Cardioaccelerator failure of his heart. This means that his body cannot increase his heart rate when needed, so his heart constantly pumps at a slow rate meaning even climbing a stairs is like climbing Mount Everest to him. If his heart rate cannot speed up it cannot pump enough oxygen around his body causing huge fatigue. Staying with his heart he has also suffered Cardiodepressor function failure which results in complicated blood pressure problem. He also suffers Baroreflex Hypersensitivity.

These genuinely are only a fraction of the abnormal tests results, in fact we cannot understand many of the results as they are so technical but they prove why my husband is so weak & tired all the time.

This consultant Neurophysiologist confirmed that due to the litany of autonomic nerve damage there are only a few chemicals in use that can cause such damage. But one thing is certain, all of the chemicals that are capable of causing the injuries my husband suffers from were used in the Irish Army Air Corps with utter disregard to any chemical health & safety.

It is further shocking to learn that the failures of health & safety in the Air Corps that were present and known about in the 1990s, are only now being remedied in 2017. This took several protected disclosures to the Minister for Defence, the Chief of Staff and the Health & Safety Authority.

My husband held the Irish Defence Forces fitness test 2 mile run record for 15 years. It was 9 minutes 6 seconds and was only beaten about 6 years ago by another proud Donegal man. Today even his top of the range mobility scooter cannot beat that time.

Does anyone know what it feels like to watch the man you love go through all of this suffering & pain and to then watch the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Junior Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe say in Dáil Éireann that the Irish Air Corps has a very high standard of health & safety?

It is like listening to a rapist defending himself in court by saying that he did what he did out of love…