In the chaos following the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, U.S. Army Captain Russell Kimberling and his Indiana National Guard unit scoured the country’s scorched southern deserts. The soldiers of Charlie Company were escorting civilian contractors tasked with initiating the next—and most ambitious—phase of the war: reviving Iraq’s oil production, which policymakers back in Washington hoped would give rise to a moderate Middle Eastern democracy.
Among the oil facilities scattered across the thin stretch of land nestled between Iran and Kuwait was the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant, located on the outskirts of Basra, Iraq’s main port city. The plant had been ransacked, stripped down to a marred skeleton of wires, pipes and heavy machinery. A thick orange dust littered its floors and peppered the ground around the buildings, enveloping Qarmat Ali in a distinct, rust-colored hue. Capt. Kimberling and his men were never told, even as they suffered severe nose bleeds, painful nasal infections and lurid skin abrasions, that the mysterious powder was a deadly carcinogen.
Between April and September of 2003, the Indiana Guardsmen and their comrades from West Virginia and Oregon were subjected to a deadly health threat that would not be tolerated in any workplace in America.
Six years later, these once-vigorous soldiers now find themselves feeble and fraught with worry. Two have died from cancer. Another is in end-of-life hospice care. Dozens more suffer from frequent respiratory problems and chronic illnesses. “Every Charlie Company soldier who was at Qarmat Ali that I have spoken to has experienced health problems,” said Kimberling, 38.
But only in the past year have most of these soldiers learned of their exposure to sodium dichromate—a poisonous chemical that has been shown to cause long-term health problems, including cancer. Their plight offers a scathing indictment of the United States Army and its largest private contractor, KBR Inc.
In 2003, having quickly disposed of Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces hurriedly scrambled to rebuild Iraq. The Pentagon faced high expectations from impatient members of the Bush administration, who had promised the American people a swift and easy war.
“It was a hectic time,” said one former high-ranking Army official. “We were trying to get the whole country back on its feet as quickly as possible, especially the oil sector.”
That responsibility fell to Houston-based KBR, the construction giant with close ties to former Vice President Dick Cheney. KBR was given just two months to rebuild Qarmat Ali as part of a $2.5 billion contract with the Army Corps of Engineers, which promised—and eventually delivered—lucrative award payments once the project was completed.
But in what has become the hallmark of the Iraq War, the burden of a hastily planned invasion was inevitably borne by the troops
“My nose would bleed for 5 to 10 minutes,” said West Virginia Staff Sgt. Russell Powell, a beefy 34-year-old medic with a thick southern twang. Last month, Powell joined Kimberling and two other Guardsmen at a hearing in front of the Democratic Policy Committee (DPC).
Like the Indiana unit, Powell and his fellow soldiers from the 1092nd Engineering Battalion out of Parkersburg, W.Va., provided security for KBR employees tasked with restoring Qarmat Ali. The plant treated water that was injected into oil wells to help maintain pressure flow, a critical process in oil production.
Despite suspicions by Pentagon officials that Qarmat Ali, like many sites around the country, had been sabotaged by Saddam Hussein’s fleeing army, U.S. military personnel were not told to take precautions.
The orange chemical was “almost impossible to avoid,” Powell said, covering some areas in drifts four feet deep. Fierce and frequent windstorms sent it swirling into the desert air and raining down on soldiers’ clothes, equipment, vehicles—even their food. “It constantly got on our skin, our eyes, in our mouths and noses,” Oregon Sgt. Rocky Bixby told the DPC.
The powder would prove to be sodium dichromate, a rust-fighting industrial chemical and highly-concentrated hexavalent chromium compound. Hexavalent chromium gained notoriety for poisoning over 600 people in Hinkley, California, a case dramatized in the 2000 motion picture, Erin Brockovich.
“Hexavalent chromium is one of the most potent carcinogens known to man,” Max Costa, a professor at the New York University School of Medicine and an expert witness in the Brockovich case, told the Democratic Policy Committee last June.
At Qarmat Ali, up to 600 soldiers might have been exposed. Some began displaying symptoms—with alarming uniformity—just days after arriving at the treatment plant.
“Within the first two months of my assignment, the irritation had progressed to a nasal infection that caused a perforation in my nose from inside out,” said Kimberling in his Congressional testimony. “You could shine a light into my nasal cavity through a hole that had eaten through to the outside of my nose.”
“My lips and face were burning, blistered and oozing pus…as though I had been burned by a hot iron,” said Powell.
For Powell, a certified medic, the shortness of breath, searing headaches and colorful rashes indicated more than simple sand irritation. “We might have thought that it was just the dry air, but when all KBR members, Iraqis and soldiers started getting bloody noses, then we knew that something was wrong,” Powell said.
But as soldiers’ health slowly deteriorated, neither KBR nor the Army conducted any tests or showed any concern over Qarmat Ali’s potential toxicity.
“Ordinarily, the Army would perform an environmental assessment of a site prior to deployment of service members or contractors to that site,” Army Secretary Pete Geren wrote in a March 2009 letter to Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). “In this case, however, the number of sites (approximately 4,000) over the geographic area of Iraq potentially needing occupational health assessments…combined with the need to restore critical infrastructure as soon as possible, made this impracticable.”
As a result, “no one from KBR or the Army ever told us about hazardous materials,” said Sgt. Bixby, a former Marine and squad leader in the 162nd Infantry Battalion of the Oregon National Guard. Some soldiers began to report their symptoms and ask questions about the thousands of torn white bags bearing the label “sodium dichromate” scattered around Qarmat Ali. They were told that the substance was merely a “mild irritant.” At daily security briefings, the troops were only warned of roadside bombs and ambushes by insurgent groups.
“Anyone who has served in the military realizes that an infantryman does not complain to the chain of command about bloody noses, or coughs, or what are seemingly minor ailments,” said Capt. Kimberling. “You assume that if you are really in danger that you will be told or it will make it down the chain of command.”
For many soldiers, it never did. Glen Bootay, a former combat engineer with the 3rd Infantry Division, just recently discovered that he might have been exposed to sodium dichromate—after a friend read about it in the newspaper.
“I remember that the air tasted like metal, like I had a mouth full of pennies,” said Bootay, 30, who enlisted in the Army on September 12, 2001. Shortly after returning from Iraq, he started vomiting up to twenty times a day. He recently began undergoing chemotherapy.
Capt. Kimberling, who had to be medically evacuated to Germany during his deployment, continues to suffer from chronic sinus problems. His general malaise has made it difficult to obtain life insurance, and he fears that he might face the same fate as his commander, Lt. Col. James Gentry, who checked into hospice care last Christmas with a rare form of small cell lung cancer. He and his men suspect sodium dichromate.
After returning from Iraq, Powell began suffering from daily bouts of nausea; today, he struggles to take a full breath. “I can no longer coach my sons in Little League,” he said.
Bixby’s persistent coughing fits make it difficult for him to carry on a conversation. A lifetime non-smoker, he has trouble walking from his house to his car without wheezing.
“I simply run out of breath,” he said.
An investigation into what transpired at Qarmat Ali uncovers a convoluted web of negligence and incompetence, and the dual culpability of a highly profitable contractor and a complicit military.
Internal company memos, coupled with the testimony of several whistleblowers, reveal that KBR ignored repeated warnings of the presence of sodium dichromate and, even after identifying the known carcinogen, failed to promptly warn U.S soldiers.
The Army, meanwhile, relied on an inadequate medical test and failed to take extra precaution to shield its troops from exposure—even in the midst of a war waged under the auspices of removing a regime wielding chemical and biological weapons. The U.S. had acquired information about Iraq’s industrial chemical imports since 1984, when State Department officials warned that companies in Russia, France and West Germany were supplying large amounts of toxins to Iraq for military use.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has used the findings from a controversial report by the U.S. Army, which tested a segment of soldiers back in 2003 for chemical exposure, to deny health coverage to sick veterans. While many Guardsmen continue to require ongoing, expensive care, the VA has refused to classify their health problems as service-related.
“By all standards, the response by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans [Affairs] to this issue has been unsatisfactory,” said Sen. Bayh before the Democratic Policy Committee. The DPC, chaired by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has hosted a pair of hearings on Qarmat Ali.
But the decision by Senate Democrats to relegate the case to the DPC, which has traditionally served as a partisan support forum, raises stark questions over whether policymakers are capable of holding KBR and the Pentagon accountable for their wrongdoing.
Instead, veterans suffering from the most unlikely of war injuries remain under a dark cloud of uncertainty. Their wounds go unrecognized and are often disputed.
“We were placed in harm’s way as a result of war,” Kimberling told Congress. “To put us in further, unnecessary jeopardy was unconscionable.”