BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- A historic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, causing a nuclear power meltdown. The U.S. Navy rushed in to help, but are those sailors now paying the price? Nearly 100 believe that mission ruined their health.
Vic Carter reports a Navy lieutenant from Maryland who can no longer walk is demanding someone take responsibility for what's happened.
On March 11, 2011, one of the largest earthquakes ever shook Japan. It triggered a tsunami. Waves more than 100 feet high slammed into the coast, killing thousands.
When the wall of water smashed into the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, an explosion spewed radiation into the air and water, creating yet another tragedy.
The United States military sped into the disaster zone to help, not knowing it was headed into the path of a radiation plume.
Now, three years after that exposure, at least 100 of those first responders are suffering from unexplained illnesses like cancer, leukemia, bleeding and hair loss, and they're blaming it on radiation poisoning from Fukushima.
"When you've got a nuclear power plant that's melting down, how can you not expect health risks to come from that?" said Lt. Steve Simmons.
Lt. Steve Simmons was on board the USS Ronald Reagan, the first ship to arrive for Operation Tomodachi--the Japanese word for friends.
"I don't think anybody on board really knew the full scope of what was going on," Simmons said.
Seven months after arriving home to his family in Maryland from his deployment, Simmons' health started to deteriorate.
"One day, I was coming out of the bathroom and my legs just buckled on me and that was pretty much it," he said.
Simmons and more than 100 others from the Ronald Reagan are fighting back. They're suing the Tokyo Electric Power Company, claiming it hid the truth about radiation leaks at Fukushima.
"The TEPCO people who ran the power plant never warned their government. Their government never warned the world. The command never got the order, `Don't go 'cause you're going to get cooked,'" said attorney Paul Garner.
WJZ contacted TEPCO at its offices here in Washington and in Tokyo and got a "No comment."
Clearly, Simmons' health has taken a drastic turn for the worse, but the problem is linking the sailors' many medical problems to the Fukushima leak.
At the Pentagon, the Department of Defense has been answering numerous questions from sick sailors about what happened at Fukushima, but government reports indicate that radiation levels on board the USS Ronald Reagan were well below what's considered dangerous.
"Drawing a cause and effect for individuals is exceedingly difficult," said Johns Hopkins University Prof. Wayne Biddle.
Radiation exposure experts say even if there is a connection, it's hard to prove.
"They're suffering. Clearly these individuals are suffering but they have no way of showing necessarily that their symptoms are related to that instance of radiation exposure," Biddle said.
"The hardest part is the family because we have three children," Simmons said. "Our oldest daughter struggles with `Dad's going to die' kind of thing."
Congress is now asking the Department of Defense for information about the medical conditions of crew members who were aboard the Ronald Reagan and what's being done to treat them.
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