Larry Roberta’s every
breath is a painful reminder of his time in Iraq. He can’t walk a block
without gasping for air. His chest hurts, his migraines sometimes
persist for days and he needs pills to help him sleep.

James Gentry
came home with rashes, ear troubles and a shortness of breath. Later,
things got much worse: He developed lung cancer.

David Moore’s
postwar life turned into a harrowing medical mystery: nosebleeds and
labored breathing that made it impossible to work, much less speak. His
desperate search for answers ended last year when he died of lung
disease at age 42.

What these three men — one sick, one dying, one
dead — had in common is they were National Guard soldiers on the same
stretch of wind-swept desert in Iraq during the early months of the war
in 2003.

These soldiers and hundreds of other Guard members from
Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia were protecting workers hired by a
subsidiary of the giant contractor, KBR Inc., to rebuild an Iraqi water
treatment plant. The area, as it turned out, was contaminated with
hexavalent chromium, a potent, sometimes deadly chemical linked to
cancer and other devastating diseases.

No one disputes that. But that’s where the agreement ends.

Among
the issues now rippling from the courthouse to Capitol Hill are whether
the chemical made people sick, when KBR knew it was there and how the
company responded. But the debate is about more than this one case; it
has raised broader questions about private contractors and health risks
in war zones.

Questions, says Sen. Evan Bayh, who plans to hold hearings on the issues, such as these:

“How
should we treat exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals as a threat
to our soldiers? How seriously should that threat be taken? What is the
role of private contractors? What about the potential conflict between
their profit motives and taking all steps necessary to protect our
soldiers?”

“This case,” says the Indiana Democrat, “has brought to light the need for systemic reform.”

For
now, dozens of National Guard veterans have sued KBR and two
subsidiaries, accusing them of minimizing and concealing the chemical’s
dangers, then downplaying nosebleeds and breathing problems as nothing
more than sand allergies or a reaction to desert air.

KBR denies any
wrongdoing. In a statement, the company said it actually found the
chemical at the Qarmat Ali plant, restricted access, cleaned it up and
“did not knowingly harm troops.”

Ten civilians hired by a KBR
subsidiary made similar claims in an arbitration resolved privately in
June. (The workers’ contract prevented them from suing.)
This isn’t
the first claim that toxins have harmed soldiers in Iraq and
Afghanistan; there have been allegations involving lead, depleted
uranium and sarin gas.

This also isn’t the first challenge to KBR,
whose billions of dollars of war-related contracts have been the
subject of congressional scrutiny and legal claims.

Among them are
lawsuits recently filed in several states against KBR and Halliburton
Co. — KBR’s parent company until 2007 — that assert open-air pits used
to burn refuse in Iraq and Afghanistan caused illnesses and death. (KBR
says it’s reviewing the charges. Halliburton maintains it was
improperly named and expects to be dismissed from the case.)

This
case stems from the chaotic start of the war in 2003 when a KBR
subsidiary was hired to restart the treatment plant, which had been
looted and virtually stripped bare. The Iraqis had used hexavalent
chromium to prevent pipe corrosion at the plant, which produced
industrial water used in oil production.

It’s the same chemical linked to poisonings in California in a case made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

Hexavalent
chromium — a toxic component of sodium dichromate — can cause severe
liver and kidney damage and studies have linked it to leukemia as well
as bone, stomach and other cancers, according to an expert who provided
a deposition for the civilian workers.

The chemical “is one of the
most potent carcinogens know to man,” declared Max Costa, chairman of
New York University’s Department of Environmental Medicine.

KBR,
however, says studies show only that industrial workers exposed to the
chemical for more than two years have an increased risk of cancer — and
in this case, soldiers were at the plant just days or months.

The
company also notes air quality studies concluded the Indiana Guard
soldiers were not exposed to high levels of hexavalent chromium. But
Costa says those tests were done when the wind was not blowing.

Both
soldiers and former workers say there were days when strong gusts
kicked up ripped-open bags of the chemical, creating a yellow-orange
haze that coated everything from their hair to their boots.

“I was
spitting blood and I was not the only one doing that,” recalls Danny
Langford, who worked for the KBR subsidiary. “The wind was blowing 30,
40 miles an hour. You could just hardly see where you were going. I
pulled my shirt over my nose and there would be blood on it.”

Larry
Roberta, a 44-year-old former Oregon National Guard member, remembers
137-degree heat and dust everywhere. He sat on a bag of the chemical,
unaware it was dangerous.

“This orange crud blew up in your face,
your eyes and on our food,” he says. “I tried to wash my chicken patty
off with my canteen. I started to get sick to my stomach right away.”

Roberta
had coughing spells and agonizing chest pains, he says, that “went all
the way through my back. … Every day I went there, I had something
weird going on.”

Russell Kimberling, a former Indiana National Guard
captain, had severe sinus troubles that forced his medical evacuation
to Germany. After returning, he became alarmed one August day in 2003
while escorting some officials to the plant in the southern Iraqi city
of Basra.

“I jumped out of the truck and I turned around and they
(KBR staff) had full chemical gear on,” he says. “I looked at some of
my soldiers and said, ‘This can’t be very good.’ … They could have
told us to put chemical suits on.”

Ed Blacke, hired as plant health,
safety and environmental coordinator, says he became worried after
workers started having breathing problems and a former colleague sent
him an internal KBR memo outlining the chemical’s dangers. Blacke says
he complained, was labeled a troublemaker and resigned under pressure.

“Normally
when you take over a job, you have a briefing — this is what’s out
there, here’s what you need for protective equipment,” says Blacke, who
testified at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing last year.
“There was nothing, nothing at all.”

Blacke and Langford were among those whose civil claims were resolved in arbitration.

Kimberling
is among nearly 50 current or former Guard members — most from Indiana,
a smaller number from Oregon and West Virginia — who’ve sued.
Mike
Doyle, a Houston lawyer representing the soldiers and civilians,
maintains KBR knew as early as May 2003 the chemical was there, but
didn’t close the site until that September.

“Once they (KBR) found
out about it, they didn’t tell anybody and they did everything to
conceal it,” he contends. “Their staff was getting reports and soldiers
and civilians who were in the field were told … ‘There’s nothing to
worry about.'”

The lawsuit cites minutes of an August 2003 KBR
meeting that mentions “serious health problems at the water treatment
plant” and notes “almost 60 percent of the people now exhibit the
symptoms.”

In a recent wide-ranging Associated Press interview, KBR
chairman William P. Utt said the company has been unfairly targeted for
its military work.

“People think there’s an opportunity here in
Iraq, let’s paint it on KBR, then we’ll worry about making the facts
precise or correct later,” he said.

As for the water plant, KBR says
once it learned of the chemical, it took precautions to protect
workers, notified the Army Corps of Engineers and led the cleanup. It
says the Corps had previously deemed the area safe.

KBR also points
to Army tests of Indiana Guard soldiers that showed no medical problems
that could be linked to exposure, as well as a military board review
that found it unlikely anyone would suffer long-term medical
consequences.

But Bayh and Doyle say those tests were done too late
to be valid and note that soil tests were taken after the contaminated
area was covered.

Doyle also disagrees with KBR’s contention that workers weren’t there long enough to have elevated cancer risks.

It
can take a long time for symptoms of illness to surface — five to 10
years or more for cancer. But some of those who say they were exposed
are already ill.
James Gentry, a retired lieutenant colonel in the
Indiana Guard, is in the late stages of lung cancer and the disease has
spread to his ribs and spine, according to his friend, Christopher Lee.

Gentry
hasn’t sued but in a December 2008 deposition he said it was “very
disappointing” KBR managers didn’t share information soldiers were
around cancer-causing chemical

“I’m dying because of it,” he said.

While
acknowledging he wasn’t 100 percent certain that’s why he has cancer,
Gentry — who served a second tour in Iraq — said his doctor “believes
the most probable cause was my exposure to this chemical.”

The
Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon National Guards have sent hundreds of
letters to soldiers notifying them of possible contamination and urging
them to seek medical attention.

Bayh has introduced a bill calling
for a medical registry that would require the Department of Defense to
notify all military members of exposure to potential toxins and ensure
their medical care. A similar measure that only mandates notification
was approved Thursday in the U.S. House as an amendment to the defense
authorization bill.

All these steps come too late for 1st Sgt. David Moore.

When
he returned from Iraq, his persistent cough escalated into breathing
problems, nosebleeds and boil-like rashes, recalls his brother, Steve.

Even when doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, Moore didn’t give up, Steve Moore says.

“He
was always upbeat,” he recalls. “He said, ‘They’ll figure it out,
they’ll figure it out.’ He thought that until the last time I talked to
him.”

Moore died in February 2008. The cause was lung disease. His
death was ruled service related. His brother believes it was hexavalent
chromium.

Larry Roberta, the former Oregon Guardsman who needed
stomach surgery after his return, says he suffers from post-traumatic
stress, mood swings, nose polyps, chest pains and debilitating
migraines.

“I have 100 percent disability,” he says. “I’ve got a
long laundry list of things that happened to me while I was there. If
you add it all up, I’d be almost 200 percent disabled.”

Kimberling, the former Indiana Guardsman, struggles as well.

The
father of two young children — he’s a pharmaceutical salesman in
Louisville, Ky. — says he hasn’t been able to get life insurance
because his possible exposure is mentioned on his medical records.

Sometimes, he says, it’s hard to separate his ailments — sinus problems and joint pains — from his fears.

“I
feel like I’m a 38-year-old in a 60-year-old’s body,” he says. … “I’m
not sure if it’s the anxiety of finding out about it or not. I kind of
know and feel it’s just a matter of time before it catches up with me.”


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