My name is Andrea Asa Sonnenberg, and my father was a career officer in the USAF. For the first 10 years of my life, we lived on base, moving from such diverse areas as Germany, Mississippi, Nebraska and Illinois. My dad retired when I was in my early 20s. This is our story.
1974 – My father enlisted in the USAF. I was born a month later. My family consisted of my 25-year-old father, my 21-year-old mother, my 4-year-old sister, and me. After basic training, my father was sent to Zwiebrucken, Germany.
1978 to 1982 – My father was stationed at George Air Force Base near Victorville, CA. I was four, and my sister was eight. We both attended Harry R. Sheppard School. In 1980, at just six, I was diagnosed with migraines. Shortly after, my mother was diagnosed with manic depression, which is now known as bipolar disorder and later with asthma. I began to have chronic stomach pain and digestive problems. The base hospital had no diagnosis and sent me to specialists, who subjected me to numerous tests before declaring that I had a “nervous stomach. In 1982, my sister was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, also commonly called juvenile diabetes.
1982 – Stationed in Biloxi, Ms.
1982 to 1986 – Stationed at Offut AFB in Nebraska. My mother’s physical and mental health continued to deteriorate, and she eventually quit her job. My sister’s diabetes was categorized as brittle [brittle diabetes], which meant that it was hard to control.
1986 – My father was transferred to Scott AFB near St. Louis, Mo. My migraines had deteriorated and were now categorized as “chronic migraine,” which is a neurological condition. I was put on a prophylactic migraine medication that led to weight gain and other bothersome symptoms. My mother’s bipolar disorder was severe at this point, and she became morbidly obese. Our family struggled under the burden of her health issues as my sister and I eventually grew up and left for college.
2001 – I got married and got pregnant, but I had a miscarriage towards the end of my first trimester. Between 2001 and 2002, I had a total of five miscarriages, each at different stages of development. I finally had a viable pregnancy that resulted in a live, if slightly early, birth in 2003. I had two more successful pregnancies after that, although each of my pregnancies was plagued by pre-eclampsia. I was diagnosed with IBS [irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)], giving an actual name to my so-called “nervous stomach.”
2003 – My mother has weight loss surgery.
2004 – My mother is diagnosed with severe anemia and is discovered to have insulin-producing tumors in her pancreas. Doctors also discover spots in her lungs that they tentatively diagnose as asbestosis, but the spots turn out to be benign.
2006 – I am placed on four different prophylactic medications for my chronic migraines, which have by now become debilitating and affect me at least 20 days a month.
2007 – My mother is advised to undergo electroconvulsive shock therapy for her bipolar disorder.
2008 – My mother undergoes surgery to have her spleen removed along with the tumors in her pancreas. She has several complications, including C. diff. [clostridium difficile infection (CDI)], and she begins to black out. The blackouts become frequent, and she is injuring herself. A huge swollen bruise on her hip, about the size of a softball, has to be surgically drained. My mother is diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome.
Myelodysplastic syndrome is a form of blood cancer. The marrow fails to keep up with the body’s need for red and white blood cells and platelets, and it instead begins to make immature cells, or blasts, which function abnormally. MDS most frequently affects elderly men or those who have been heavily exposed to certain chemicals or those who have undergone radiation or chemotherapy.
My mother had never had chemotherapy or radiation treatments. She was not an elderly woman. In spite of her health problems, she had no clear risk factors for MDS. She began to have regular blood transfusions.
2009 – My mother’s blood tests show a potassium imbalance. The doctors take a wait-and-see approach. My mother dies within a few days after suffering cardiac arrest.
2013 – My sister has a massive heart attack at just 43 and slips into a Diabetic Ketoacidotic Coma. St. Louis University literally saved her life and brought her back from a blood glucose level of 1300.
Today – Everyone wants answers. Most of the time, the answers we receive are unclear or inconclusive. I have no way of knowing if my family simply had abysmal bad luck or if our (numerous) health problems can be linked to our years at George AFB. I do know that we were never told of any exposure to anything there or at any other base. Dioxin can stay in the body for decades and affect the neurological, endocrinological and reproductive systems. Other chemicals apparently present at GAFB are also linked to long-term damage, especially for pregnant women and young children. I have no way of knowing if the government’s reprehensible actions contributed to my mother’s ultimate death or if my own chronic pain condition can be laid at their door.
I only know that my family has fumbled through our lives with mental and physical illness that can largely be traced to our time there. My mother, my sister and I were diagnosed with various health problems during our time in California. We have struggled with those same health problems and more since that time. My mother has died. My father now has peripheral neuropathy.
We may never have all the answers, but we deserve whatever answers the government can give us (not what they are willing to give us but everything they CAN give us). Taking a proactive approach to whatever contamination we experienced may be able to help us better manage the health problems we have, the health problems we may develop, and the health problems our children may be facing. The government exposed us. The least they can do is provide us with the information we need to protect ourselves from further harm.