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.
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.
"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.
Then she found Cryobank, which claims to be the world's largest sperm bank. Many of Cryobank's clients are storing sperm due to illness or other concerns: for example, a cancer patient about to undergo radiation or chemotherapy treatments that might cause infertility. The company's main business is selling sperm from donors to infertile couples and single or lesbian women who want to have children.
Discounts for military
Cryobank discounts its fees for military personnel and offers one year's free storage, which would normally cost $280. Atwell paid $240 to have his semen frozen, and for required blood, urine and semen analysis.
In theory, at least, the frozen sperm can live frozen forever.
Cryobank requires its clients to designate what happens to the sperm in the event of their death: They can opt to leave it to their wives or girlfriends, the executor of their estate, or have it destroyed. Most have designated the women, but a few chose to have it destroyed, said Delgadillo.
Atwell, 35, a sergeant who works as a mechanic when not serving in the Guard, said he must get a total of 26 shots before deploying to the Gulf with his Fresno-based unit. He has already had inoculations for flu, malaria, typhoid and hepatitis. He said he wanted to donate semen before getting the anthrax and smallpox vaccines, in particular.
It is precisely these chemical combinations that could be causing problems, said researcher Abou-Donia. Though they are tested individually for safety, the various vaccines have not been tested to see how they work together. "When there's a chemical cocktail, normally the body eliminates one," he said. "But if three are competing for the body's detox mechanisms, this would impede the ability to remove it from the body. It means that eventually more will go to the brain and other organs."
The researchers gave adult male rats weight-adjusted doses of the pyridostigmine bromide, which soldiers took three times a day in the Gulf War to combat the effects of nerve gas, and also exposed them to the insecticides Deet and Permethrin, in which soldiers soaked their skin and often their uniforms to protect themselves from mosquitoes and bug-borne diseases.
The effects were exacerbated when stress, an inevitable component of war, was added. The stress effect was simulated in the rats by immobilizing them in plastic contraptions for five minutes every day.
The studies found that the rats appeared to be normal on the outside, as did the Gulf War soldiers who returned and reported maladies, but when their organs were examined under the microscope, they found significant deterioration in the brain, liver and testes. There was significant brain cell death in areas of the brain that control balance, strength, memory, cognition, emotions and joint pain.
The damaged cells in the testes and liver can eventually regenerate, Abou-Donia said, but the damage to the brain is irrevocable.
Atwell and Cruz said they don't understand the military's reluctance to even bring up the idea of freezing sperm. "It's just taking precautions for the unknown," said Atwell.
Cruz believes that younger men, in particular, should be aware that vaccines, or biological and chemical weapons, may potentially impair fertility or cause other adverse effects. "What if something's wrong with your baby?" she said. "It should be addressed. It doesn't take anything to hand out an extra flier about the side effects of the vaccine."
Cruz said she'll rest easier while Atwell is away, knowing that if he never returns, she'll still have the possibility of having his child. "But if something were to happen I would definitely like a little him running around."