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Insurance policy: Troops freezing sperm

Some visit sperm bank as precaution before deployment

From Frank Buckley

Fears of infertility or being killed in battle spur some servicemen to freeze their sperm before heading out.
Fears of infertility or being killed in battle spur some servicemen to freeze their sperm before heading out.

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CNN's Frank Buckley discovers that along with making wills, a few military men are freezing their sperm before heading out to the Gulf. (January 30)
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(CNN) -- Deploying troops have always squared away their wills and other legal and financial affairs before going into harm's way. But now, a small number of servicemen are choosing to make a stop at a sperm bank before heading out.

Troops say having their sperm frozen gives them peace of mind in case of death or infertility.

"You may never use your deposit, but it's always good to have that option there," said Sgt. Patrick Atwell.

Atwell is an Army National Guardsman who expects to deploy to the Persian Gulf. Fiancee Angela Cruz urged Atwell to preserve his sperm after a 1991 Gulf War veteran in his unit told the sergeant he came back from Desert Storm to find he was sterile.

"I feel more hopeful with our future," Cruz said. "And if God forbid, he doesn't come back, then I'll be able to have a piece of him here still. A little Patrick running around."

A spokesman for the Department of Defense says the Pentagon neither encourages nor discourages military members from taking this step.

Atwell believes the military should include information about sperm storage in deployment preparations.

"They prepare for your death, but they don't prepare for your life after ... you've done your service and perhaps you've been exposed," he said.

Only a very small percentage of the tens of thousands of servicemen who are deploying are taking this option. For example, California Cryobank, the nation's largest, says 30 military men have made deposits.

Fairfax Cryobank, headquartered in Virginia and the second largest sperm storage fertility, said the number of appointments by military troops is increasing, but is still less than a hundred.

A Department of Defense official told CNN that "based on what we know from the Gulf War, there are no medical indications that infertility should be a concern of deploying servicemembers. In fact, studies of Gulf War veterans' health have shown that male Gulf War veterans had a higher rate of birth compared to those who did not deploy."

Despite the government's assurances, some Gulf War veterans continue to blame sexual dysfunction and fertility problems on their service in Desert Storm.

A Duke University medical center study released this month concluded that a combination of substances used in the Gulf War -- the insect repellent Deet, an anti-nerve gas agent and an insecticide -- caused extensive cell degeneration and cell death in the testes of laboratory rats.

"You may never use your deposit, but it's always good to have that option there," said Sgt. Patrick Atwell.

The study's authors said that the combination in 1991 may have inadvertently damaged testes and sperm production in some troops and may explain why some veterans experienced infertility, sexual dysfunction and other symptoms.

For women troops, the options for precautions against infertility are not so simple.

The process of freezing eggs is still highly experimental and not routinely done, said Fairfax Cryobank spokesperson Suzanne Seitz. Right now, she said the only alternative for a female was to go through a lengthy process, where she donates an egg and a partner produces sperm and the two are mixed in the lab. The resulting embryo could then be frozen.

The procedure for women is not cheap, carrying an average $10,000 price tag. For men, it's much less expensive. Sperm donation and one year of storage in a bank runs about $600.

The medical director of California Cryobank, where soldier Atwell's sperm is stored, said the potential risks involved in any conflict should at least cause men to consider saving their sperm.

"It's an insurance policy," Dr. Cappy Rothman said. "If anybody could tell these soldiers honestly, 'You don't have to store the sperm because there is nothing bad that's going to happen to you,' then I'll say, OK. But I don't know who could ever say something like that."

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