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Tucson Marine's death baffling
Contracted rare blood disease during 4-month Iraq service
By Carla McClain
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 01.11.2007
The parents of a Tucson Marine who developed an extremely rare blood disease while serving in Iraq have agonized about the cause of his sudden illness, but have no answers.
Sgt. Aron Cody Blum, 22, died two weeks ago of aplastic anemia — the failure of the bone marrow to make new blood cells — a condition that strikes only two in 1 million Americans.
Although some veterans of both Iraq wars have blamed their development of this disease on toxic battlefield exposures — including depleted uranium and burning oil fields — or even the anthrax vaccine, a link has never been proved.
And Blum's parents say they have no evidence their son suffered such exposures during his four months of service in the current war.
"Aron was as flabbergasted as we were when he got sick. None of us had even heard of aplastic anemia before this," said his mother, Dale Blum, on Wednesday, shortly after the military issued a delayed announcement of the Marine's death.
"We have racked our brains over what he might have been exposed to, even before going to Iraq. But when he was there, he was a crew chief on a C-130 — part of an air-to-air refueling squadron. Aron never left the base except in the air. So he didn't have some of those more toxic ground-combat exposures."
Although exposure to toxic chemicals is considered a major risk factor for aplastic anemia, other risks include viral infections, drugs to treat arthritis, bacterial infections, cancer and autoimmune disorders. The chemicals most closely linked to the disease are benzene, along with pesticides and insecticides.
"The doctors told us there is no way to determine what may have caused this, or when Aron might have been exposed," said his father, Robert Blum.
"They said you can put a million people in a room and expose them to these chemicals, and only one or two will get this. That's all they could tell us."
After he joined the Marines in 2002, Blum trained at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, Calif., then was deployed to Iraq in August, where he was assigned to the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
Four months later, in early December, he called his parents from the military hospital at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to tell them he'd been suffering unusual bleeding and bruising, and had been evacuated there from Anbar province.
"He told us something was wrong, but not to be worried," his father said. "He noticed things like, when he nicked himself shaving, he would bleed for 20 minutes before it would stop.
"So he went to his flight surgeon in Iraq, and they ran blood tests and found he had no platelets. They did an immediate platelet transfusion, then sent him to Ramstein."
At the time, Blum asked his parents if there were any blood disorders in his family. They researched it but found none.
But three days later, Blum was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia — damage to the bone marrow severe enough to shut down production of vital red, white and platelet blood cells. Doctors told him a bone-marrow transplant was his best chance to survive, and he was being shipped back to the United States.
"The kid was so upset he wasn't being sent back to his unit," his father said. "That was his whole concern. He so wanted to stay there. He felt very bad about leaving his guys short in Iraq. That was he worst thing for him."
After Blum's arrival at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego on Dec. 14, plans were immediately started for a bone marrow transplant. His two brothers, Atly, 18, also a Marine, and Ashlin, 19, a student at Pima Community College and the University of Arizona, started testing to see if either would be a match for donation to Aron.
But on Christmas Day, just hours after he was released from the naval hospital as an outpatient, Blum spiked a fever of 103 degrees and was rushed back to the emergency room. With his immune system destroyed by the anemia, an E. coli infection overwhelmed his body. He died three days later.
"Aron was loved by all and will be deeply missed," his parents wrote in a funeral notice in early January. Blum was honored Saturday with a memorial and full military honors — including an Air Force flyover of two KC-130s — at Palo Verde Park on the city's East Side.
A graduate with honors from Sahuaro High School in 2002, Blum played baseball, football and soccer and enjoyed acting. As a youngster, he was a Boy Scout and he played in the Sahuaro Little League.
● Contact reporter Carla McClain at 806-7754 or at email@example.com.