WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Aug. 4, 2009) -- Three former National Guard members told a Senate committee Monday they were exposed to a deadly chemical with long-term health effects while serving in Iraq.
Russell Powell, a former West Virginia Army National Guard staff sergeant; Rocky Bixby, a former Oregon Army National Guard staff sergeant; and Russell Kimberling, a former Indiana Army National Guard infantry company commander, are among hundreds of Guard members who were notified in letters earlier this year that they were exposed to sodium dichromate.
The toxic carcinogen was spread across a ruined water-injection facility in Qarmat Ali, Iraq, when the Soldiers were there in the spring and summer of 2003, they said in testimony before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.
Among those who listened to the Soldiers' testimony Monday was Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, and senators who represent the states where the Guard members served.
Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, where up to 142 Guard members were affected by the Qarmat Ali exposure, has authored legislation to improve medical care for servicemembers exposed to toxic chemicals during wartime service.
The "Health Care for Members of the Armed Forces Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act of 2009" is cosponsored by Sens. Robert Byrd, Richard Lugar, John Rockefeller, Byron Dorgan, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.
Among its provisions, the bill would:
Aca,!Ac Establish a registry for at-risk veterans.
Aca,!Ac Make veterans exposed to environmental and chemical hazards eligible for medical examinations, laboratory tests and treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals.
Aca,!Ac Require the Department of Defense to conduct a scientific study about evidence linking medical conditions to hazardous substances.
Aca,!Ac Put the burden of proof on the government.
"This legislation is guided by our government's response to Agent Orange in Vietnam, when we shifted the evidentiary burden so veterans placed at risk did not bear the burden of proof if future health conditions developed," Bayh said.
On Monday, Powell told senators about what he experienced at Qarmat Ali:
"From April 2003 to June 2003, I was assigned to the Qarmat Ali water-treatment plant. When my platoon arrived at the plant, it was in total disarray and had been vandalized and nearly destroyed. The metal buildings were stripped of everything valuable. The roofs were missing.
"A building that contained thousands of 100-pound bags of what I know now to be sodium dichromate had its roof stripped off, and the top layers of the bags were ripped open, exposing the orange powder to the wind."
The bags were spread throughout the Qarmat Ali plant, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, the committee chair, said that previous testimony indicated this might have been done deliberately before the plant was abandoned to poison American troops.
"Sodium dichromate is a deadly poison," said Dorgan, adding that up to 500 Soldiers were exposed.
In a previous hearing, the chairman of the Department of Environmental Science at NYU Medical School, Dr. Max Costa, testified that sodium dichromate contains "one of the most potent carcinogens known to man" and that it can "enter every cell ... and potentially produce widespread injury to every major organ."
The chemical was popularized by the movie "Erin Brockovich," the story of the real-life exposure of California residents to the chemical in drinking water.
On Monday, Herman Gibb, former senior science advisor and associate director for health for the National Center for Environmental Assessment, testified: "The symptoms reported by some of the Soldiers who served at Qarmat Ali are consistent with significant exposure to sodium dichromate."
National Guard members from Indiana, Oregon, West Virginia and South Carolina were affected by the Qarmat Ali exposure. "They performed that mission admirably," Bayh said. "But, in a tragic irony, they were not kept safe by us."
The Soldiers who testified Monday said they laid down and slept on the chemical, breathed it during sandstorms, saw it on each others' food and used the bags as sandbags during weapons training.
The bags were labeled in Chinese and the Guardmembers testified they were repeatedly told that the chemical was a minor irritant.
Dorgan said his Senate committee has requested an inspector general investigation into the exposure at Qarmat Ali, into the contractor working there - Kellogg, Brown and Root - and into the Army's response.
The exposure of the Soldiers was brought to light by a KBR whistleblower last year, said Dorgan, who added, "the fact that a lot of people, including our troops, were exposed...is beyond dispute."
According to the Soldiers' biographies provided by the committee, Powell coughed up blood, had nosebleeds, became nauseous and had facial burns during his time at Qarmat Ali. This former battalion medic now has chronic shortness of breath, nosebleeds and skin rashes.
Bixby, who also is a former Marine, had difficulty breathing, pressure in his chest and itching in his lungs while at the plant and still has shortness of breath and coughing.
Kimberling, the company commander who testified he reassured his Soldiers about the chemical because that was what he was told, was medevaced out of Iraq after he developed a perforation in his nose, a "chrome hole" said to be a tell-tale sign of sodium dichromate exposure. He continues to have aching joints and sinus problems.
"These bags were spread throughout the facility, both inside and outside the buildings," Powell testified. "The bags were often placed at the doorways ... so we had to walk through piles of the orange powder when we entered and exited the buildings. The Soldiers ... would even use the bags as protection during storms and sit on the bags to eat lunch."
Guard members noticed a metallic taste in the air, Powell said.
It was worse during sandstorms. "During my work at Qarmat Ali, there were at least 10 windstorms," Powell said. "They were like tornadoes blowing through the facility, picking up the orange powder and other debris, and turning day into night. I would see other Soldiers coughing up blood into their shirts while trying to protect their faces.
"After these storms, everyone was coated in orange powder - we looked like orange-powdered doughnuts. We would have to dust each other off to get the powder off our clothes. At no time were we offered any kind of protective clothing, masks or respirators by KBR or the Army."
Seeing his fellow Soldiers and KBR workers develop nosebleeds, cough up blood, struggle to breath, become nauseous, experience a burning sensation in their lungs and throats and develop skin lesions, Powell was frustrated about his inability to use his medic skills to offer them relief.
"I felt very concerned about the safety and health of the people I was serving with," he said. "I questioned one of the KBR workers about the powder and all related medical problems. He told me that his supervisors at KBR told him not to worry about the powder or our health problems because we must be allergic to sand and dust at the same time - for the first time - with such similar symptoms.
"As a medic, had I known the true nature of the risk, I would have made sure that everyone had appropriate personal protective equipment."
Powell said the Army held a town hall meeting in West Virginia in March to offer information to the Soldiers.
"No one from KBR or the Army ever told us about hazardous materials at the Qarmat Ali facility," Bixby testified, pausing repeatedly to cough into a white handkerchief.
"One thing that really bothers me is that this exposure was preventable," Bixby said. "I understand that KBR was responsible for the environmental assessment of the site and for clean up. They were paid for that work, and we were dispatched to guard and protect the KBR employees so that they could do their job.
"We could have used protective gear. ... When the war began, we were issued protective suits. If KBR had told us about the toxic nature of the chemical ... we would have used this protective gear."
Kimberling, who commanded Charlie Company, 1-152 Infantry, 76th Separate Infantry Brigade at Qarmat Ali, said he was told his men didn't need protective suits.
"At no time during our deployment were we told to wear face masks or chemical gear," he said. "When we were assigned to Qarmat Ali, KBR told us that according to their risk assessment, no personal protective equipment was necessary."
Guard members were reluctant to complain, Kimberling testified. "Anyone who has served...realized that an infantryman does not complain to the chain of command about bloody noses, or coughs, or what are seemingly minor ailments.
"This is a deployment to a desert region where you are told that it's likely that under normal circumstances you might suffer from a dry throat or maybe a nosebleed. You assume that if you are really in danger that you will be told or it will make it down the chain of command."
The first time Kimberling said he saw anyone use personal protective equipment was when his commander, Lt. Col. James Gentry, ordered him to escort Gentry and a group of civilians in August 2003. When they got out of their vehicles, the civilians donned white protective suits, Kimberling testified.
"They did not see fit to inform us...we should have been doing the same," he testified. "They did see fit to protect themselves."
Gentry is now in a hospice with terminal lung cancer.
"Charlie Company was placed in harm's way as a result of war," Kimberling said. "To put us in further, unnecessary jeopardy was unconscionable."
(Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves with the National Guard Bureau.)