⅓ of a decorated Iraq War platoon now suffering from exposure to war’s lethal leftovers

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Photo credit Photo illustration by Heather Sullivan/Connecting Vets. Photo: Cpl. Samuel Corum.
This is the second installment in the Connecting Vets Toxic Inferno series.

Shortly after Sgt. Richard Vasquez returned home from war, he and his wife were expecting their second daughter. Her name was Elizabeth. 

Sitting in a doctor’s office during a five-month sonogram, Vasquez’s then-wife laughed and joked with the technician. But Vasquez noticed something off about the fuzzy image of the baby on the screen.

“I just kept looking at the screen, watching the baby,” he said. “Something wasn’t right.” 

The technician took a second look. Then a third. Then he rushed to get a doctor.

“I could see it on his face. I just kept asking ‘Is there something wrong with our baby? You have to tell me what’s wrong with my baby,’” Vasquez told Connecting Vets.

“That happy atmosphere that had been there in the room just disappeared.” 

Elizabeth never took her first breath.

Vasquez’s unborn daughter had a rare chromosomal disorder (Trisomy 13-14)  that caused a severe cleft palate, additional fingers and toes, brain development abnormalities, a significant congenital heart defect, missing internal organs and she was having seizures in the womb, among many other issues, he recalled.

At five months, doctors told the young couple that they were surprised Elizabeth had lived so long, and she likely would not survive much longer. Doctors said Elizabeth’s disorder was likely genetic, common in older couples with a history of the disorder. But Vasquez and his wife were in their early 20s, already with one healthy daughter at home. 

Extensive genetic testing of both Vasquez and his wife showed nothing to indicate either carried the potential for such a disorder, he said. And there had been no family history of it on either side that they could determine. Doctors told the couple such a case was “unbelievably rare” to manifest in a child of parents so young.

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Smoke and fire

Vasquez deployed to Iraq with Recon platoon of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, or Deuce Four, assigned to 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division Lightning, a Stryker brigade, which was instrumental in the Battle of Mosul in 2004.

The battalion would return home decorated with five Silver Stars, 31 Bronze Stars and 181 Purple Hearts and was later awarded the Valorous Unit Award. 

Two men from Vasquez’s platoon of 32 didn’t make it home -- 22-year-old Sgt. Adam Plumondore and 24-year-old Sgt. Ben Morton -- guilt and grief he still feels sharply.

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During that deployment, Vasquez and other men lived a few hundred yards from a burn pit. There was an incinerator at the forward operating base in Mosul, Iraq. But it was rarely if ever used, family and veterans tell Connecting Vets.