Lisa Jo Sarro - Specialist, Military Police, U.S. Army
Lisa Jo Sarro was 17 years old when she enlisted in the Army. She imagined a bright and fascinating future - an opportunity to serve her country, travel the world and have a full 20-year military career.
She was healthy and excited when she arrived at Ft McClellan for Basic Training and Military Police school in June 1984. Then the odd symptoms and illnesses began: fevers, pain, emotional swings and memory issues. At the time, she had no idea why she was so ill. She remembers some of her fellow soldiers also falling inexplicably ill at Fort McClellan and often seeing dead birds and some dead dogs while out on training exercises. She didn’t think at the time that these could perhaps be connected to her illnesses or toxins on the installation, but in retrospect, it makes her wonder. After willing her way through her health obstacles to complete her training, Lisa Jo went on to her duty station in Hawaii, and the odd illnesses and symptoms followed her.
“I was always sick with something. No one could figure it out,” she says. “And then came the depression and anxiety.”
After three years of service, her symptoms resulted in an early honorable discharge. She says she now lives with 32 health conditions and a variety of symptoms that have yet to be connected with a diagnosis. Her symptoms include lesions that resemble a condition known as Chloracne - connected with exposure to toxins such as dioxins and the military herbicide known as Agent Orange. Severe depression and anxiety remain a daily issue.
Lisa Jo’s two children and two grandchildren now also have severe health issues. Her 30-year-old son survived leukemia to then face a gallbladder removal, blood clots in both his lungs, pneumonia, and an incurable blood disease that requires monthly treatments in which he spends three hours having a pint of blood removed because it is too thick. He also has depression and anxiety.
“Some days, I just don’t want to be here,” she says.
Her 27-year-old daughter has survived blood clots in both her lungs, a hysterectomy, a grapefruit-sized tumor, depression and anxiety.
Her 8-year-old grandson underwent surgery for a mass that filled his chest and covered his heart. Half of one of his lungs had to be removed and he now lives with asthma and hyperactivity. Her 6-year-old grand-daughter has had heart issues.
Lisa Jo describes her life as a daily battle physically, emotionally and financially. She struggles to make ends meet and to support both she and her ill son on her small Social Security disability income. She receives no VA benefits and is currently awaiting a decision on an appeal application that would give her a VA disability rating and hopefully open the door to receiving help.
“If we were hurt in war, we’d get all the health care we need, anything we need…Purple Hearts… We took on poisoning from the government and Monsanto. They all knew we were being poisoned and no one said a word. It’s like we were guinea pigs or something,” she says. “Here we are left out to die and suffer and fight for whatever little bit we can get. It’s just not fair. I just don’t understand how they can sleep at night.”
Concern for her children and grandchildren keep Lisa Jo going and she also finds meaning and purpose in working to help her fellow veterans through a Fort McClellan veterans Facebook group she created and manages. She also attends events like Operation Stand Together in Washington, D.C. – a rally to get attention for Fort McClellan veterans. She is widely known and appreciated among the ill veterans for her activism, encouragement and "care package" - an ever-growing list of links and information about resources that helps ill veterans find assistance they need.
“How many of us have to die before they say 'Okay enough is enough, we have to help these guys'?”