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Blood Money

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Harrison also points out that, while the troops may have been in the same area as sodium dichromate, that doesn’t automatically mean they were overexposed — and the medical evidence proves it.

However, the Center only tested a portion of the roughly 600 soldiers who rotated through Qarmat Ali; physical evaluations were done on the 129 Indiana National Guardsmen on site at the time of the testing. The Oregon, West Virginia and South Carolina Guardsmen no longer serving at the site were given questionnaires.

The Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General called this paucity of testing “a lost opportunity for obtaining more complete knowledge of the possible medical impact of pre-encapsulation exposure.”

Moreover, many other Guardsmen were not even aware that they had been exposed to sodium dichromate until 2008, when Congressional hearings began.

And because the U.S. Army and KBR are vehemently backing the Center’s findings, it appears they are casually dismissing the soldiers’ complaints as misinformed whining at best, and opportunistic malingering at worst.

Both entities would have to brush aside the Congressional testimony of soldiers like Infantry Company Commander Russell Kimberling, who alleged that “We were told by KBR that the sodium dichromate was a mild irritant, and that one would have to literally bathe in it for any toxicity to occur.”

Likewise, both the Army and KBR would have to brush aside the weird dichotomy between the “fact sheets” the Center was distributing to the Qarmat Ali soldiers and KBR’s simultaneous meetings.

The Center’s first fact sheet, dated September 19, 2003, stated the Army was “developing a robust risk communication program to keep everyone informed” about sodium dichromate exposure.

Two weeks later, KBR, Army Corps, and South Oil Company personnel held a meeting in which KBR safety officer Chuck Adams noted that “the company will be liable” if personnel are exposed, and suggested that blood testing should be done for “people shoveling the dust into bags” because “if exposed too long may cause death.” (This meeting was more than a month after the KBR meeting where a safety officer noted that nearly 60 percent of the people exhibited symptoms).

Also at this meeting, a gentleman from the South Oil Company noted that his people needed “updated literature,” as they were “using a book that is 25 years old.”

There is also the question of what constitutes an “official” notice to the Army Corps of Engineers by KBR that sodium dichromate was on site. Although KBR notified the Corps in writing on August 12, 2003, of potential sodium dichromate exposure, a Corps safety officer wrote of sodium dichromate’s presence in a June 25 log.

Houston-based plaintiffs’ lawyer Mike Doyle finds the one-of-our-dudes-told-one-of-their-dudes defense ridiculous: “So whatever KBR says or did, as long as they pointed out one portion to one guy in one division of the Army, they can lie to everybody on an ongoing basis,” is how he describes it.

Doyle refers to the willful misconduct clause in KBR’s contract, which the Army had refused to turn over to a Congressional panel for years, as a vital clue that the company foresaw potentially fatal hazards but was more concerned with its bottom line than with the lives of even its own employees. (KBR’s attorney, Harrison, says the fact that KBR asked for full indemnification was never classified and was revealed to Doyle as early as 2006.)

After the indemnification clause finally came to light, Oregon legislators authored a bill intending to stamp out what they considered questionable business practices. The National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to notify Congressional defense committees of all future indemnifications in government contracts.

Co-author Senator Ron Wyden issued a statement promising that “From now on, contractors doing business with the Department of Defense are not going to get a free pass to be reckless and irresponsible with the lives and health of American soldiers.”

Of course, Larry Roberta believes the Act came too late for those who worked at Qarmat Ali.

By December 2003, Roberta was experiencing extreme acid reflux disorder. In January 2004, he says, Army physicians recommended a Nissen fundoplication wrap: Surgeons made five incisions in his abdomen, entered laparoscopically and wrapped the top part of his stomach to form a one-way valve between his esophagus and the rest of the stomach.

Roberta says he had to grind up his food for a month, but that was a minor inconvenience when compared to the pain he says often hits out of the blue. The Nissen wrap leaves a person unable to vomit when he feels he has to. Roberta describes it as like someone punching your stomach from the inside.

“If I breathe too heavy, my lungs hurt,” he told the Press. Unable to work since September 2004, a big day for Roberta is walking to the mailbox. He has a cane for these treks, but these days, he relies more on his 75-pound English bulldog, Gino. When he feels dizzy or faint, Roberta says, he can lean on Gino. Roberta named his brown and white companion after his first National Guard platoon sergeant.

Like Gentry, Roberta says he expected certain things with his service: You can get injured or killed by the enemy or through friendly fire. That’s part of the deal.

“But I don’t expect to be incapacitated by a contractor that’s out there making millions of dollars,” he says.

Gentry’s widow, Luann, of course feels the same way. (Click HERE for original article)

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