Iris Socorro Johnson - Specialist-5, Accounting & Finance, Womens Army Corps

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In the summer of 1967 Iris Socorro Johnson and two girlfriends had just graduated from college in Puerto Rico. They all signed up for the U.S. Army “on a whim” after being drawn into a military recruiter’s office by the attractive photos on the door. When their families found out, they “nearly had heart failure”, but the girls had signed and belonged to the U.S. Army. A week later they left the island for training. Iris lost touch with the other girls who entered officer training. She didn’t want the commitment that came with being an Army officer and entered the enlisted training program – starting out at Fort McClellan from July 1967 until December of 1967.

At Ft McClellan, Iris began experiencing health issues that have followed her through her life.  “I began to have, what I consider to be strange signs," says Iris. "I was 20 years old. I started losing my teeth and getting serious infections in my mouth.” Over the course of her life she has lost many of her teeth and still experiences breaking and loose teeth. She continues the list of her health problems: Hormonal issues and hemorrhaging during her monthly cycles; Severe endometriosis that continually returned after treatments; Severe stomach ulcers; A bleeding ulcer in her early 30s that ruptured and put her into a 5-day coma; Severe high blood pressure - she notes that she has never smoked, drank alcohol or been overweight or had other lifestyle issues that are usually the cause of this. Her blood pressure has remained high and resistant to medication she has been on for 45 years. 

After her training was completed at Fort McClellan, Iris went onward into her military career as a finance and accounting clerk, receiving a promotion to an E-5 Specialist within a year. While stationed at Oakland Army Base in California, she married a fellow soldier.  At that time, married women were not allowed to serve in the military and she was released from the Army. 

The couple began trying to have children and the first three times Iris was pregnant she miscarried. Her gynecologist offered the opinion that she exhibited symptoms of toxic exposure. After medical treatment, in early 1971, Iris was finally having a successful pregnancy at 7 months when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided not to have treatment for the cancer during her pregnancy because it would affect the baby’s health. Two months later, at 9 months pregnant, the cancer had spread and under doctor’s advice, she underwent surgery. Fortunately, the surgery was successful, she gave birth to her first child, and she has been in remission since.

When her marriage ended in her early 30s, Iris found herself a single mother of 9 children and pushed through her health issues to support and raise them as a single mother. Cultural custom made it impossible for her to return home to her family in Puerto Rico. “I was a disgrace to the family to be divorced.” Her years of working in spite of her health issues has made it hard for her to receive help from the VA. She says, the fact that she worked successfully for all those years, is taken by the VA to mean that the PTSD from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) did not disable her. Like most Fort McClellan veterans, her many other health conditions, that began while at the Army installation in Alabama, are not being linked by the VA to her military duty. She considers herself fortunate to have limited help via a 50% VA disability rating for a brain injury resulting from a fall while she was on active duty. 

Now 70 years old, Iris lives with pain in her muscles and joints and has been diagnosed with severe osteoporosis in addition to her other continued health issues. Her doctor has recently expressed concern about what will happen to her if she falls on the tile floors of her small one-bedroom apartment, so one of her sons has set up an office to work from there so that he can be nearby regularly. It is challenging for Iris to have someone with her in close quarters, particularly due to her PTSD symptoms, but it helps that it is her son, and she is enduring the situation.

Above and beyond herself, Iris is concerned about what she believes are the effects of Fort McClellan that have been passed on to her children and grandchildren. The majority of her children experience issues with either anxiety, depression, or both. Her daughters battle obesity and experience the same reproductive system issues Iris did. Her oldest daughter has six children and five of them have had a variety of developmental and learning issues - particularly with speech and language. Her 18-year-old grandson has a 4th-grade reading ability despite years of special education. Her oldest daughter became a school teacher and has worked diligently to help her children overcome their disabilities. One of Iris’ grandsons, now 22-years old, has experienced depression since he was five or six years old. “A child with depression!” Her youngest daughter’s 9-month old son has not been able to reach any of the usual developmental milestones. “Her baby cannot even swallow food properly…and he cannot crawl, he cannot roll.” Extensive medical testing has not revealed explanations for why he is developmentally delayed. 

“Fort McClellan was a pit, to create so many serious health problems.” Listen to a portion of Iris' story in her own words in the audio clip above.

Memphis Barbree