For U.S. troops, a personal mission

Couples: More weighing parenthood are donating to sperm banks as a kind of genetic insurance against looming war.

January 27, 2003|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Before he ships out for the Persian Gulf to fight a possible war with Iraq, Navy engineer James Erler is taking care of a long to-do list: He needs to fix things around the house, put the family finances in order, run some last-minute errands.

And, while he's out, pay a quick visit to the sperm bank.

As tens of thousands of troops receive orders to deploy to the Middle East, U.S. servicemen are finding time for an unconventional errand - one that takes Norman Rockwell images of a soldier's farewell and gives them a 21st-century twist. During the past month, the nation's leading sperm banks have reported a record increase in visits by departing military men as couples seek a kind of genetic insurance against the injury, illness and death that war can bring.

By putting sperm in the deep freeze, some servicemen believe they are safeguarding against birth defects or infertility, problems they fear could be caused by exposure to chemical or biological weapons in the gulf or unexpected side effects of vaccinations. While it might bring peace of mind, the technology also forces couples to confront an uncomfortable new question: whether to start a pregnancy even after the death of the future father.

Erler, who is stationed at the 32nd Street Naval Base in San Diego, has met with a doctor and plans to bank his sperm in the coming weeks. He and his wife, Melissa, decided he ought to do so after the couple discussed the dangers of a war and the risks James encountered while serving overseas during last year's anti-terror campaign.

And then there's this: Melissa says that in James she has found her soul mate. She worries that a war with Iraq could cost her a dream: to see the child that reminds her of him.

"I want my husband's legacy to carry on even if he doesn't come back," says Melissa, 20, who hopes to become pregnant within two years because of a medical condition that could leave her infertile soon after. "I asked myself, `What if he does pass on?' And I thought, `I don't ever want to say I lost my chance to get pregnant.' I couldn't live with that."

James acknowledges some uneasiness with the idea of his wife deciding on a pregnancy if he were lost in war, but the 24-year-old says that he supports it because of Nathaniel, Melissa's 17-month-old son from a previous relationship. He and Melissa, both only children, don't want Nathaniel to share in what he calls the loneliness of growing up without siblings.

"I have mixed emotions about doing this," says James. "It'd be nice if I knew that my child was born into this world healthy and without any problems. But you have to just deal with it and know that a child may never know who his daddy was."

California Cryobank, a Los Angeles facility that is within a half-day's drive of several military installations, has recorded about 50 servicemen walking through its doors in the past three weeks. The sperm bank's administrators say military men, who used to generate almost zero business, now make up about half of all donors.

`Patriotic thing to do'

Dr. Cappy Rothman, 65, who three decades ago founded California Cryobank - now the nation's largest sperm bank - says the facility is offering bargains for military sperm. Because of the threat of war, he is waiving the $270 annual fee for preserving samples.

"I thought it was the patriotic thing to do," he says. "I'm a veteran myself."

In suburban Virginia, Fairfax Cryobank has seen about 30 servicemen in the past month. After Sept. 11, the facility solicited business from troops leaving for Afghanistan. A newspaper advertisement featured a soldier in fatigues beside the caption "Fairfax Cryobank ... committed to preserving fatherhood." But the ads generated no military responses, perhaps because the campaign seemed too macabre. Some military publications refused to print it.

But now, with no advertising, servicemen around Maryland, Washington and Virginia are calling for information.

For soldiers farther afield, many of whom live on military bases, Fairfax Cryobank sends out "Priority Male" collection kits. Barracks life, better known for pinup girls, now includes sperm-sample preservation materials and pre-addressed, express-mail envelopes.

Sperm banks make up a thriving niche industry, albeit one that cloaks itself in secrecy and euphemisms. The Fairfax Cryobank is hidden in a sprawling office park, no signs directing visitors to the facility, whose name sounds to the uninitiated like a generic biotech lab. Inside the waiting room, discretion abounds. An inspirational poster featuring a picture of a blond boy on a beach beneath the word "Priorities" is the only hint at what is to happen next. The men are led into what the sperm bank politely calls "specimen rooms" and offered a selection of Playboy and Penthouse magazines stored inside a cabinet over a sink.

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