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Cuban Veterans Poisoned by Agent Orange

The temperature hovered slightly above freezing near the end of winter 1963. A small group of soldiers who had recently been transferred to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, stood in line outside dusty barracks. They looked curiously at 55-gallon steel drums painted with an orange band. After a few minutes, a gruff sergeant called their names and serial numbers, and they walked into a closed room. They stood still for a few minutes as a chemical spray settled over their green fatigues and penetrated their pores.

"The only proof we have of this is in the lists they used to... take us to the gas chambers," says Carlos Ruiz-Rojas, a 72-year-old Cuban refugee who joined the U.S. Army at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. "And right before entering the gas chambers, they specified very clearly that after entering, we had to stand there without moving."

For more than two decades, Ruiz-Rojas, backed by affidavits from other members of a special infantry unit made up of Cuban refugees, has been fighting a battle with the U.S. government. He says the Army intentionally exposed dozens of Cuban-American soldiers to Agent Orange, a highly toxic dioxin compound used in the Vietnam War to destroy jungle canopy and deny North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas vegetative cover.

Ruiz-Rojas grew up in Havana, studied briefly at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic School in Miami, and then attended Campbellsville College in Kentucky. Part of his family traces to the Spanish colonization of Cuba in the 16th Century. Another branch is Connecticut Yankee stock that moved to the Bahamas in 1795 and on to Cuba in 1840.

In 1960, he joined the approximately 150,000 Cubans in the first wave that fled the Caribbean island for South Florida. At that time, he was thinking about marrying his sweetheart, but that would have to wait until after taking part in a secret plan to invade his homeland.

"I went into the U.S. Army as a response to the October Missile Crisis and after President Kennedy announced that the Russians had placed missiles in Cuba," Ruiz-Rojas says. "The next day, I showed up as a volunteer at the induction center."

His induction papers show he officially joined the army November 2, 1962. Ruiz-Rojas and more than 2,500 other newly arrived Cuban refugees in Miami responded to President John F. Kennedy's call for volunteers after the missiles were discovered. They joined Unidades Cubanas, a special unit of Cuban soldiers who were supposed to help spearhead a force of 300,000 men that would invade the island in accordance with a secret CIA plan known as Operation Mongoose.

A grainy black-and-white photo shows him standing in uniform in front of the U.S. Army recruiting station at 4100 Aurora St. in Coral Gables. "We got there on November 4," he recalls. "On November 5 at 1 a.m., they took us to the airport. The place was deserted, it was all hush-hush, very secret. They put us on a plane and took us to [training]." Ruiz-Rojas recalls this top-secret mission while sitting next to former Army buddy Carlos Suárez-Murias in a booth at La Carreta restaurant in Kendall. Suárez-Murias was inducted a few days later at the same location on Aurora Street. "I went into the Army for several reasons," says Suárez-Murias, who at age 16 left Cuba for Jamaica on a Pedro Pan refugee flight. "Number one because I feel very grateful to the U.S., but at the same time I am a Cuban through and through."

Suárez-Murias, now 71 years old, remembers U.S. Army Rangers were their drill sergeants. "We had advanced combat training. I remember very clearly that they used to make us come out of the barracks in our T-shirts with snow and below-freezing temperatures... They also taught us how to protect ourselves from a nuclear attack by digging ourselves into the ground."

Almost 15 years ago, Ruiz-Rojas, Suárez-Murias, and five other Cuban U.S. Army veterans signed individual affidavits that stated, "While serving on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States of America (U.S. Army) on or around August 1962 to June 1963, I was exposed to or had/have knowledge that others were also exposed to 'AGENT ORANGE' and/or 'AGENT BLUE' experiments conducted directly by our U.S. Army."

Suárez-Murias recalls 100 to 200 soldiers being put in line and then sent into barracks where they were sprayed with a mysterious gas. "I don't understand why they did this, and why they would savagely expose us to a chemical that, back then, even they didn't know what it could cause... It was a mandatory test."

A day after the spraying, he says, he had a bad headache. "When I got to sick call, it was full of soldiers," he says. A few years later, Suárez-Murias developed asthma and allergies to penicillin and sulfites. When he lived in Long Island, New York, in the '80s, he recalls being hospitalized because he couldn't breathe.

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Javier Aparisi