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.
Cuban Veterans Poisoned by Agent Orange
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.
Fifteen years ago, he suffered a heart attack and was treated for blocked arteries. He now takes medication for cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Ruiz-Rojas remembers more details. "The Puerto Rican sergeants told us that this would be off the books and that this was a test with chemicals," he adds.
After a brief stay in Costa Rica to join anti-Castro efforts headed by exile leader Manuel Artime, Ruiz-Rojas returned to Miami and enrolled in barber school under the GI Bill. By the time he married in the late '60s, he was cutting hair on Flagler Street in a shop he would eventually own.
His medical records indicate he suffers from type 2 diabetes and a low sperm count and has had more than ten cysts in his spine, hip, and liver since 1967. Before leaving the service in May 1963, Ruiz-Rojas saw an Army doctor who detected a cyst in his lower back but refused to operate. A cancerous cyst in his right breast required a radical mastectomy in 1980. Male breast cancer is rare. For every 100 cases of this disease, less than one occurs in men, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"When I had my breast cancer operation, I thought it was something that happened to thousands of other people," Ruiz-Rojas says. "But when for the second time I had a tumor in my spine that disabled me, I started making inquiries. I went to the University of Miami library and read literature and reached the conclusion that my problems were related to chemical exposure."
After that, he began studying Agent Orange. The defoliant was manufactured under military contract by several companies, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto.
Vietnamese advocacy groups claim there are more than 3 million Vietnamese suffering from health problems caused by exposure to the dioxin in Agent Orange.
After first denying tests existed in the United States, the Pentagon acknowledged in 2003 that 5,842 U.S. soldiers and sailors were involved in experiments between 1962 and 1973 to determine the effectiveness of biological and chemical weapons. In the past several years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has processed some 278,000 new claims for Agent Orange by U.S. veterans.
The list of diseases caused by Agent Orange compiled by the Vietnam Red Cross and recently included in a study by the Congressional Research Service includes type 2 diabetes, various forms of cancer, and reproductive abnormalities. The VA keeps a similar list.
Ruiz-Rojas says the government should have a record of the Fort Jackson experiment. This U.S. Army installation is not listed by the VA as an Agent Orange test or storage site.
In 2008, the Board of Veterans' Appeals ruled against Ruiz-Rojas's Agent Orange exposure claim, which was originally filed in 1989. "The veteran claims the U.S. Army has 'lists' that contain the names of veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. He does not state where these lists are located or if he is making the generalized statement that the U.S. Army should have a list of those exposed veterans," according to the VA board ruling.
Eight years earlier, the government responded to Ruiz-Rojas's Freedom of Information Act request in a letter that alleged it had no information about Fort Jackson Agent Orange experiments. Maj. James O. Farr Jr. of the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps suggested he follow up with Susan Fugate, an official at the National Agricultural Library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in Beltsville, Maryland.
"I talked to her on the phone, and she said they had lists of soldiers who participated in Agent Orange tests and that she would get back to me later. We never talked again," Ruiz-Rojas says.
(New Times contacted Fugate, who doesn't recall the conversation but says at the time in 2000, the library was "in the middle of the digitalization of records." She said chemical companies have some copyright. A cursory search through the Alvin L. Young Collection on Agent Orange did not reveal documentation of testing or storage at Fort Jackson, she said, but added that she would have her staff look through the material.)
Ruiz-Rojas exhausted his appeals within the VA in 2008. The following year, an appeals court refused to review the case.
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Rafael Lorente-Salgado, a 68-year-old retired postal worker, also signed one of the affidavits in 1998 saying he was exposed to Agent Orange. Today, he is not so sure. "It may have happened," he said in a recent phone conversation, "but I don't remember it."
Two other veterans who signed affidavits — Juan Arrue-Palma and his cousin Orlando Guilarte-Palma — did not respond to phone calls. Ruiz-Rojas also has copies of prepared affidavits for two other veterans who died before they could sign them. Enrique Baloyra said in a phone conversation that his father, Enrique Baloyra-Herp, who was a University of Miami professor after his time in the Army, passed away in 1997 of a brain aneurism in his mid-50s.
Yet Carlos Ruiz-Rojas continues his quest. He received a civilian disability award from the Social Security Administration after the removal of his spinal tumor in 1988. He currently draws a social security pension of $985 per month but spends $104 of it on Medicare. He insists with undiminished sentiment that the U.S. government exploited his and the others' youthful enthusiasm to overthrow Fidel Castro as a ruse so it could carry out illegal and inhumane experiments.
"When you join the Army, you think that you will be going into the line of combat to fight the enemy and that you could die," he says. "The one thing you can't imagine is that they are going to use you as a guinea pig to carry out a chemical experiment that is harmful to human health."