I was a Captain in the United States Air Force and B-52G Aircraft Commander stationed at Wurtsmith Air Force Base (AFB) from 1986-1990. Carrie, my wife, was the anchor at home, already raising our two older children. My son, Mitchell Lee Minor, was born October 6, 1989, at Wurtsmith AFB, Michigan. The minute Mitchell was born, the doctor noticed he had a slightly smaller head than normal. It was another six months before doctors knew for sure something was wrong. One week later, Mitchell’s diagnosis became microcephaly (small head) because his head and brain were growing slower than his body, causing his now obvious developmental delays. Mitchell’s initial diagnosis was only the beginning of our family’s journey that would span three decades. Since that life-altering day, Mitchell’s full list of complications slowly emerged to reshape our lives with each punctuated event. Over the years, Mitchell had five major surgeries to prolong his life, ease his discomfort, and improve his care. Mitchell’s stature and head grew some, but his mental capacity never progressed past that of a baby.
When the dust settled, roughly twenty years later, Mitchell’s complete diagnosis was microcephaly, infantile cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, scoliosis associated with his condition, generalized convulsive epilepsy (Lennox-Gastaut syndrome), and respiratory insufficiency. Mitchell required around the clock care.
At the beginning, a doctor said Mitchell would not live past five. When Mitchell was six years old doctors suggested Mitchell would not live to be a teenager. After Mitchell’s thirteenth birthday, the doctors stopped guessing. Words like palliative care and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders became new terms in a long list of medical vernaculars that were common in the Minor household. Mitchell lived to be 30-years old and was able to spend all his years at home with his family.
In the early years, Air Force doctors would suggest the cause of Mitchell’s microcephaly and profound handicaps was cytomegalovirus (CMV), which presents like the flu in the first trimester of pregnancy. For years, we accepted this possibility, providing us with some amount of closure as our heads were down fighting for stability. While living on Wurtsmith AFB, something happened in the first trimester of Carrie’s pregnancy. As God was knitting Mitchell’s brain together in Carrie’s womb, a foreign substance crossed the placenta. Completely unknown to Carrie and me at the time, the Wurtsmith AFB groundwater was contaminated. We did not learn of this contamination until May of 2018. We sat stunned in front of the television as the national news began to report about significant groundwater contamination on 126 military bases across the United States. Wurtsmith AFB was on the list where the only source of drinking water was from the many wells scattered across its seven-square-mile landscape. After reading the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) 1983 and 1986, “Assessment of Ground-Water Contamination at Wurtsmith AFB” reports, we discovered a more likely cause for Mitchell’s profound handicaps began to take shape.
At Wurtsmith AFB, the routine practice was extinguishing mock aircraft fires using fire retardant foams known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF). The fire retardant uses perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) chemicals, which contaminated the drinking water on base. Carrie and I moved into base housing during the first trimester of her pregnancy. The correlation is suspicious, and the studies are compelling to suggest similar birth defects result from exposure to these Polyfluorinated Surfactant (PFS) class of chemicals.
During a child’s development in the womb the potential for birth defects from chemicals is a well-known danger. The first trimester is especially critical. Like most moms, Carrie was careful not to take any over the counter drugs and consumed no caffeine or alcohol. Of course, doctors would not prescribe any medications. During our time at Wurtsmith AFB, Carrie and I do not recall anyone telling us the groundwater was contaminated. Had we known; Carrie would not have drunk the well water. Knowing what we know today and because Mitchell’s handicaps began in the womb, the story of the cause begs consideration. This story begins twelve years before Mitchell was born and ends with a drink of water.
Clearly, the contamination story at Wurtsmith AFB is part of a larger story affecting bases all over the country and abroad. Our family now accepts that the frontline of the cold war were installations like Wurtsmith AFB. Like all wars, there is a loss of blood and treasure. In this case, civilian casualties were part of that loss. During the cold war, it was the civilian and military working on installations and the families of the warfighters put in harm’s way while protecting our nation. Like Agent Orange in Vietnam and the Burn Pits in Iraq, history will likely record that chemical contamination of veterans during the cold war was not on foreign soil. In addition, the unanticipated impact to the warfighter’s families, unknowingly on a battlefield, will add to the traditional costs of freedom. From our perspective, Mitchell paid the ultimate cost for the freedoms our great country enjoys today.
Excerpts from OVERWHELMED: Mitchell’s Memoir Introduction and Chapter 14: Poison in the Wells