WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Had Army Spc. Kevin Shumaker died from a mortar blast or insurgent fire while serving in Afghanistan, that would be devastating but fathomable.
Instead, the decorated 24-year-old from Livermore, Calif., was dealt a fatal blow in January while breaking up, of all things, a dogfight at his remote Afghanistan base.
Eight months after a stray dog bit his hand, Shumaker died from rabies in a New York hospital, the only death this year in the United States from the rare and very treatable disease.
Shumaker told his parents he was treated for rabies at the base, but the series of injections was not completed.
His family members, who live in Castro Valley, Calif., want answers from the Army as to how Shumaker died from such a preventable disease and to make sure no more soldiers meet the same fate.
"I would not be without my son if the proper treatment was given to Kevin," his mother, Elaine Taylor, said Wednesday. "Rabies is 100 percent preventable with the right vaccine, but without that treatment you die.
"If he would have died from an enemy attack, we would've been devastated, but we knew he was in harm's way when he was deployed."
Shumaker spent his teen years in Castro Valley, graduating from Stars High School in San Leandro, and always leaned toward serving his country. He enlisted at 21, shortly after moving to Livermore.
In May 2010, he left for his first tour in Afghanistan, working as a cook at a base in the mountains of Chamkani.
As the base cook, among other duties, Shumaker was assigned to feed two base dogs, who had been vaccinated against rabies, Taylor said. About Jan. 10, stray dogs attacked the base dogs, and one bit him on the hand as he tried to break up the fight, Shumaker told his mother in phone and email conversations.
An animal lover with two Labrador retrievers at home, he obeyed an order to shoot the strays. Shumaker shared with his mother his pain over having to kill the animals.
He told her the Army had the animal that bit him tested for rabies and the result came back negative. Shumaker also told his parents he was given what he thought were rabies shots, but he received only three of six because the others were expired.
"I don't know what exactly happened," Taylor said. "It's really frustrating."
U.S. Central Command is investigating how Shumaker contracted rabies and his "treatment in theatre," and could not comment on that inquiry, said Jaime Cavazos, a spokesman for Army Medical Command.
Shumaker finished his tour in May and spent a month in Castro Valley in June. An Aug. 12 video shows him bowling with friends in Germany.
The first symptom appeared Aug. 14, after Shumaker flew from Germany to New York to start his new assignment at Fort Drum.
"I have the weirdest pain in my arm. It's radiating down my arm and it feels like it's tingling," he told his mom upon arriving at JFK Airport.
He went to a civilian hospital the next day and was given anti-inflammatory treatment for tendinitis. The following day, he visited a civilian chiropractor and told his mother he felt a little better, but he then started having stomach issues, she said.
On Aug. 17, he had trouble drinking, but he was a "stoic kid" and downplayed it, Taylor said.
The next day, a Thursday, he checked into his new post at Fort Drum. On Friday, his first day of work at the base, he collapsed and was taken to a civilian hospital near Fort Drum. After seeing two doctors, the third diagnosed him with rabies and sent him to a hospital in Syracuse, his mother said.
Shumaker called his mother and joked about his fantastic new hospital room, but Taylor thought she could hear labored breathing. Throat constriction is a rabies symptom.
After they hung up, the nurse called Taylor to tell her to fly out immediately.
After a series of blood tests, a doctor at Upstate University Hospital found no evidence of rabies antibodies in Shumaker, leading his mother to question whether he received any rabies vaccination at all.
When Shumaker's parents arrived, he was in an induced coma and on the Milwaukee protocol, an experimental rabies treatment to keep the disease from shutting down his nervous system.
On the morning of Aug. 31, his doctor told the Taylors that Shumaker had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He passed away later that day.
The Army has tried to help the Taylors, but without clear answers there's little closure. Taylor can't stop thinking about the eight months when he could have been treated.
"I think (the Army) feels pretty bad that they failed Kevin. You need answers. We can't get closure when you don't know all of what happened," she said.
Following Shumaker's death, Army Central Command formed a rabies response team "tasked to ensure deployed service members who are bitten or scratched by a dog while deployed in theatre report the incident to the nearest medical treatment facility and get medical care," Cavazos wrote in an email.
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"Additionally, we've undertaken a multi-phases approach to identify, notify, and, if necessary, treat soldiers who have or suspect they have been exposed to rabies.
"Army Medicine's thoughts and prayers are with the mother and family of Specialist Kevin R. Shumaker during this difficult period," Cavazos wrote.
"This is a sad and tragic event, and we too feel this loss deeply. We are fully committed to providing the highest quality medical care to all soldiers when and where it is needed via the best means possible."
Only a few people die each year in the United States from rabies, mostly due to bats, a disease control specialist said. Most die because they do not seek medical treatment, usually because they are unaware of the exposure.
"The incubation for this disease can be long and variable," said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It depends on the wound and the amount of virus secreted by the animal and the location of the wound. ... In developing countries, it's not uncommon at all to die of rabies."
Skinner said proper rabies treatment is administered as soon as possible after the exposure and involves five shots over a two-week period.
"You need to complete the entire series of shots to be optimally protected," he said.
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Taylor hopes her son's story will make a difference.
"We wonder how many other military people are out there that have been bit and the symptoms have just not shown up," she said.
But mostly, she misses her Kevin. The one who loved computers and wolves, even tattooing some on his body.
"He was a smart, very loving kid and loved the Army and was very proud of what he achieved," she said.
Shumaker received full military honors and was cremated Wednesday. His ashes are en route to Castro Valley, his mother said.
"He's coming home to me."
(c)2011 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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