Troops start trend with sperm banks
Posted 1/26/2003 9:45 PM
special for USA TODAY
By Valerie Alvord

SAN DIEGO - Terry Turner and Patrick Atwell are soldiers who live on opposite sides of the country. Both are in their 30s and intend to have children some day. Both are on their way to the Middle East. And both banked their sperm before shipping out.

They are among dozens who have hastily taken that action often at the urging of their wife or girlfriend - before being deployed, according to several labs that specialize in storing sperm.

The trend started around November when troops began going to the Middle East in preparation for a possible war against Iraq. And it's fueled by stories of men who came home from the previous Gulf War with various illnesses, including the inability to have children, lab managers say.

"It was something I was happy to do, to give my wife peace of mind," says Turner, 30, a sergeant in the Army Reserve who lives in Annapolis, Md.

"My fiance is a nurse, and she thought it would be a good thing to do," says Atwell, 35, a sergeant in the Army National Guard who lives in Corcoran, Calif., near Fresno.

Both men say it's fear of infertility, not death, that led them to a room in a cryonics lab, where they produced semen that was frozen in liquid nitrogen.

The men must designate who will take custody of the sperm in the event of their death.

"I did it mainly because I was getting the anthrax and smallpox vaccinations. And there's no telling what chemicals I might be exposed to," says Turner, a Baltimore police officer. "I know I'm in good health prior to leaving. So now we have something to refer to, a marker, if we need it later."

Numerous studies have been conducted to determine what caused the sickness experienced by thousands of veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. But so far there is no definitive answer. The military has said it could be stress, while the veterans attribute it to a combination of vaccines, pesticides and chemical exposure.

Atwell says no one in the military's leadership is addressing the health fears that many men are experiencing as troops return to the Middle East - and perhaps to the same conditions that caused the Gulf War illnesses 12 years ago.

"They do tell you that there's a possibility you may be exposed to chemical and biological agents," he says. "But there is no written packet of information."

The military is not talking about infertility or advising precautions - such as the storing of sperm - because "family planning is deeply personal," says Michael Kilpatrick of the military's Deployment Health Support department. He also says there's no scientific evidence that men who served in the Gulf are at greater risk of becoming infertile.

A recent study by Duke University says that some rats exposed simultaneously to three chemicals used in the Persian Gulf became sterile. But Kilpatrick maintains that Gulf War soldiers were not exposed to all three chemicals at the same time.

"There was (another) major study that looked at birth rates. And Gulf War veterans had a higher rate of birth of children than military men who did not go to war," Kilpatrick says.

There are "residual questions about men's health" from the Gulf War, says Brent Hazelrigg, director of Fairfax Cryobank in Fairfax, Va., the lab Turner used.

The lab has been trying to tell military men that storing sperm is a reasonable precaution since the United States starting sending troops to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hazelrigg says.

"It seems to be going through the grapevine," says Nolberto Delgadillo of California Cryobank, the nation's largest sperm storage facility.

Generally, the military men Delgadillo talks to are in committed relationships and are 23-32. He says they are in all branches of the service.

"Most of the time, it's the wife or girlfriend who gives us the call," he says. "They want to bank the sperm before the smallpox and anthrax vaccinations. And they're concerned because they've heard stories of men coming back from the Gulf and not being 100%, whether due to the vaccinations or to chemical and biological agents they were exposed to."

Those were the concerns that motivated Angela Cruz, 36, a nurse. She made the appointment for Atwell, her fiance who is scheduled to deploy in the next two weeks.

Andrea Turner made the appointment for her husband, Terry, at Fairfax Cryobank, just two days before he left for the Middle East.

"I did it because of all the stuff that may or may not occur," says Andrea, 30, a physicist. "He was getting vaccinated. And there could be biological warfare. We don't have any children, and we want children. Maybe I'm a little too cautious. But I thought that this would be a reasonable thing to do."

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