Thursday, October 08, 2009

Barack's all about the boys




Today the US Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, chaired by Senator Daniel Akaka, held a hearing entitled "VA and DoD Response to Certain Military Exposures." We're going to jump into the first panel -- well into it -- and then work a bit backwards. Imagine yourself infected or exposed to a substance that puts your life in danger. Imagine that your government put you at risk and/or hid the risk. After the exposure is known of, how's the government contacting you, getting the word out?

Senator Daniel Akaka: Many of you have given heart-felt testimony regarding some very, very personal issues that have effected your lives. I know I speak for the entire committee -- members of this committee -- when I say that we appreciate your here today. I'd like to ask my question to four of our witness: Mr. Partain, Ms. Pennington, Ms. Paganelli and Mr. Powell. Are you satisfied with the military's response to each of the exposures your or your family member was effected by including high-risk list -- high-risk health problems? Mr. Partain?

Michael Partain: As far as the military's response to my exposures at Camp Lejeune, I would say no. I was diagnosed with male breast cancer in April 2007. My wife found the disease when she gave me a huge before bed one night. Two months later, I discovered that I had been exposed in the womb while at Camp Lejeune. I had no knowledge of my exposures until then. It just happened to be -- my father was watching a newscast and saw a hearing about Camp Lejeune and that's how I became aware of this.

Senator Daniel Akaka: Ms. Pennington?

Stacy Pennington: We-we were disappointed actually with the doctors at actually Duke University for orally citing the reasons for my brother's aggressive AML [Acute Myelogenous Leukemia]. When pushed again, they admitted it was definitely due to chemical exposure but they couldn't prove it. And there is some pushback that they are receiving from the military there at Fort Bragg. And I don't know the details to that. They wouldn't elicit any further. I can tell you the [Matt] Bumpus family, no, has not received any assistance from the VA or military because Matt ended his service one year after -- or the disease came to light one year after his service. So the VA has harshly denied the connection between the AML and his service in Iraq and where he was stationed in Balad. So, no, they are not receiving any benefits from the VA or military and are completely dissatisfied.

Senator Daniel Akaka: Thank you. Ms. Paganelli.

Laurie Paganelli: Thank you. I would say on behalf of [US Naval Air Facility] Atsugi residents and past Atsugi residents, "no," because I really strongly believe there needs to be a accurate registry and so many families are not informed. I just really would like there to be a registry for these families and benefits for those who, further down the line, need them. Some acknowledgment for that. Thank you.

Senator Daniel Akaka: Thank you. Mr. Powell?

Russell Powell: I think that the Army did, or the Department of Defense did kind of lack in acknowledgment that we were even exposed later, about five years later. after we returned home. And it was just kind of an eye opener. So that's kind of -- I'll tell you like this. We go to the VA and the VA has no idea what's going on with us but they still are kind of timid on what to say -- whether it's exposure or anything like that. They're just -- are trying to back away from us. So we're all pretty disappointed. We're on a registry but the registry, to us, doesn't -- still doesn't say "You guys were exposed." Or a lot of soldiers try to put in claims for the chemical exposure get denied.

They were not informed. They were not informed at all. The first panel was composed of those four plus Colorado State University's John R. Nuckols, University of South Carolina's Charles Feigley, Dr. Robert F. Miller and Herman Gibb who has a PhD. We're focusing on the four witnesses already quoted above.

Michael Partain's parents were stationed at Camp Lejeune. His mother became pregnant there, he was born on base. Camp Lejeune residents "were exposed to high levels of tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TC), dichloroethylene (DCE), benzene and vinyl chloride in the tap water provided to my family by the Marine Corps." In his testimony, Partain discussed the song-and-dance and outright lies between 1981 through November December 198 and, "The misrepresentation did not end with the public and the media, it extended to the EPA. On November 1, 1985, there was a meeting at Camp Lejeune between base officials and EPA representatives. During this meeting, base officials including Robert Alexander, told the EPA that the contamination had not reached the distribution plants. Three years later, another base official, Assistant Chief of Staff Facilities, Col Thomas J. Dalzell was quoted in the media that prior to 1983: 'At that time, we were not aware of any of these particular compounds that might have been in the ground water and we have no information that anyone's health was in any danger at that time'." Again, among the many health problems that Michael Partain faced as a result of his exposure to these chemicals was breast cancer.

Stacy Pennington is the sister of Staff Sgt Steven Gregory Ochs and was speaking on behalf of him and their family and on behalf Staff Sgt Matt Bumpus and his family. Her brother was in the military for 14 years and Matt for 8 and 3/4 years. Both men were deployed to Iraq.

Stacy Pennington: Both of these brave soldiers you see before you dodged bullets, mortar attacks, roadside bombs and suicide bombers. Eventually their tours of duty would take their lives. The ultimate sacrifice for a soldier, for his country, is death. However, their deaths did not show up in the manner you may assume. In Balad is the site of the infamous enormous burn pit that has been called by Lt Col Darrin L. Curtis, USAF and Bio-environmental Engineering Flight Commander, as "the worst environmental site" he had ever visited. Staff Sgt Ochs and Staf Sgt Bumpus were both stationed in Balad and war, as strategic as it is, followed them home. Death lay dormant in their blood and waited for them to return safely home and into the arms of their loved ones. Like every silent ticking bomb, it eventually exploded. On September 28, 2007, just months after Steve's return home from his third tour, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, also known as AML. He spent the next ten months as a patient -- more like a resident -- at Duke University Hospital. Doctors at Duke said his aggressive form of AML was definitely chemically induced and, like Steve, both agreed it was due to the exposures he experienced while in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the doctors refused to go on record citing as the reason that they could not prove it. The aggressive AML that Steve endured was similar to bullets ricocheting in the body causing torturous pain. The graphic images embedded in my mind are of Steve's last screams for air as he was rushed into ICU. Steve waved goodbye to my husband. Steve, with very little strength, said, "I love you, sis" and my mom kissed his forehead and said, "We will see you when you get comfortable." Five minutes later, while in the ICU waiting room, the nurse came in to tell us Steve went into cardiac arrest and they were working on him now. My mom ran into ICU -- fell to her knees as she realized her son was dying. Screams filled the air as we begged God to keep Steve here with us. We know Steve heard us as tears were in Steve's eyes. Doctors and nurses pumped on Steve's chest trying to revive him. But I knew immediately he was gone. His spirit that surrounded my dear, sweet brother was gone. We were left alone with Steve's body for hours as we were all in pure shock. My mom looked upon my brother's face and wiped away the tears puddled in his eyes. And at that very moment, our lives were changed forever. Steve died on July 12, 2008. Two weeks later, on the opposite of the coast, Staff Sgt Bumpus would succumb to the same fate. For Staff Sgt Matt Bumpus, the ticking time bomb exploded with a vengeance on July 31, 2006. Matt was rushed to the hospital by ambulance with acute appendicitis. In Matt's own words, I quote, "The next thing I remember is hearing that I had been diagnosed with AML." Doctors declared that there was chromosome damage due to exposures he must have come in contact with while in Iraq. Matt ended his prestigious service to the Army one short year before the war zone chemical warfare showed signs of its presence. As if this was not enough suffering, Staff Sgt Bumpus' family was met by the VA with harsh claims of denial to benefits. This battle continues to this day as Lisa, Staff Sgt Bumpus' wife, is left alone with two small children to raise with no VA or military benefits for her family. The aggressive assault of the AML in Matt's body was taking claim. Jo, Matt's mother, recalls the haunted look in Matt's eyes as he revealed to her that the AML invasion was back. Matt's mother will never forget the discouragement and sadness that overwhelmed Matt as the realization that promises he made to his wife and children to provide for his family, to love and protect them, and that his sacred word would be broken. He knew now that the battle was over and he would be leaving his family behind. Tuesday, July 29, 2008, Matt once again entered the hospital with fever and septic infection that discharged throughout his body. Doctors notified the family that it would just be days before his demise. Matt was heavily sedated as the pain and incubation was unbearable. Nate, Matt's ten-year-old son, bravely entered his father's hospital room to lay on his daddy's chest as he said his final goodbye. Nate curled up by his dad and cried and cried. Despite Matt's heavy sedation, Matt too was crying. Matt, being a devoted Christian, appropriately passed away on a Sunday morning, surrounded by his wife, mother, father and sister as they expressed to Matt their everlasting love. They, too, were in shock and stayed with Matt's body as the realization overwhelmed them that Matt would not be going home. Matt died on August 3, 2008.

Later, with Senator Jay Rockefeller, Pennington would pick back up on this topic and note,
I need to tell you that my brother immediately upon return from his third tour in Iraq the end of April 2007, suffered from flu-like symptoms almost immediately. He went to Womack [Army Medical Center] Hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina three times. The doctors did exactly what you just said. They said, 'You have some type of virus." She explained he was sent home with Ibuprofin and, not until September and after "he had to get special permission to be seen by a private hospital, where the private hospital actually discovered that my brother actually had AML."

Laurie Paganelli spoke "on behalf of my family and as a representative for hundreds of Sailors, Marines and civilians who were unknowingly exposed to and have been adversely affected by the contaminated air, soil and water at US Navy Air Facility Atsugi, Japan." Her husband is a member of the US Navy and he and his family were stationed at Atsugi from 1997 to 2000. Their son Jordan was only five years old in 1997. Eleven years later, January 11, 2008 ("our lives changed forever") when their son "was diagnosed with a rare, vicious and highly aggressive form of cancer -- so aggressive, in fact, that by the time he displayed any symptoms, his cancer had already progressed to a Stage Four condition. The name of his cancer is Alveolar Rhabdo-Myo-Sarcoma, "ARMS" for short." He was sixteen-years-old and his parents were learning he had cancer and that his type of cancer does not have a high survival rate. He immediately went into treatment which included "twelve total weeks of radiation" and ended up on crutches "quite a contrast to the young boy who played at Atsugi Base and the high school cross country star he had been just months prior to diagnosis." The Shinkampo Incineration Complex on the base was releasing toxic fumes and chemicals. Starting in 1997, when Laurie Paganelli's family was stationed at the base, the Navy started to let a few people know of some of the risks. The limited risks the Navy was willing to acknowledge were further minimized by encouraging people to believe they were safe as long as they were inside when chemical plumes from the incinerator were visible in the air. She explained, "The Navy had knowledge that Atsugi residents were being exposed to Dioxin in the SIC's emissions by the early 1990s; and they knew what detrimental effects such exposure would do to the human body. As you remember, Dioxin is what made Agent Orange so toxic. So it's no surprise that, by 1998, the Navy recognized their liability and instituted a one-page waiver that did not convey information of the known long-term risk associated with SIC. We were all required to sign this waiver."

Russel Powell joined the army in 1994 and was discharged in 2001 and he then enlisted in the West Virginia Army National Guard. March 2003, he was deployed to Iraq. In Iraq, "1092nd Charlie Company was assigned as security for the KBR contractors. My duties consisted of battalion medic and supplied defensive positions and cover fire if needed to protect KBR contractors at Qarmat Ali Water treatment plant in Basra, Iraq." They were immediately confronted with the orange dust everywhere which coated everything and spilled out of open sacks, caught up in the dust storms which Powell estimated hit "ten times daily." They were not offered protective clothing or masks, nor were they warned that the orange powder was dangerous.

Russell Powell: After a few weeks of being at the facility, several personnel began getting lesions on their hands, arms, faces and nostril area. As a medic, I felt very concerned for the safety and health of persons exposed. I questioned of the KBR workers, I have forgotten his name, and he told me that his supervisors told him not to worry about it, that we were allergic to sand and dust. Shortly there after, there was another severe dust storm. I ate an MRE and my throat and stomach began to burn like nothing I have felt before. My nose began to bleed and I was nauseated. After this particular storm, I was severely sick to the point that when we returned to Kuwait City, Kuwait, I was told that I was not going out on the mission the following day. The following day, I went to the infirmary at Camp Commando and was seen by a Naval doctor. After a brief examination, he dismissed me as being sick and prescribed me Motrin and Tylenol. Approximately thirty minutes later, I went to a bombshell bunker to give myself an IV, a couple soldiers found me. I was delirious and coughing up blood. I do not remember anything until waking up the following day in the Kuwait Soldiers Hospital. My face and lips were burnt and my throat was sore to the point I couldn't swallow anything. I was there for almost a week getting antibiotics intravenously. The doctors had no explanation why I was sick or why my face and lips were burnt so badly. The day I was released from the hospital, I returned to Qarmat Ali with Charlie Company 2nd platoon. Upon my return to Qarmat Ali, numerous soldiers were complaining of the same symptoms I was experiencing. I prescribed those soldiers antibiotics; however, the symptoms persisted. At the end of June 2003, the Indiana National Guard relieved us of our duties. Our unit moved into northern Iraq. The nose bleeds subsided a little, but the nausea was still present daily. After leaving Iraq in April 2004, I went to the VA clinic in Clarksburg, West Virginia to talk to the doctors about my skin rashes and lesions, stomach problems and nose bleeds. The doctors were unable to determine what the cause is of these problems. In 2009, I received a letter from the West Virginia National Guard stating we were possibly exposed to Sodium Dichromate while serving at Qarmat Ali and the VA doctors believe that this could be what's causing my health issues, but because they know little about Sodium Dichromate, they are researching and trying to figure out the affects of it on the human body.

Senator Jay Rockefeller was thanked by name by Russell Powell and he's worked on this issue for decades. He was sharing in the hearing about twenty-five years ago when they were dealing with it with regards to WWII. He spoke of doctors with the VA who have ignored the problems or suggested "take an aspirin and go home or you've got a virus, go home, sleep, get a good sleep. It makes me mad. And what scares me is that I don't know if the culture has changed." He spoke of the frustration with the same situations repeating over and over: "And I don't get it, why they don't learn? And maybe I'm wrong but until someone shows me I'm wrong, I'm just mad." We'll note this section of Rockefeller's questioning.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: What fascinates me but angers me so much is that -- as I said, and you'll remember this, Russell, at our August hearing -- is there such a direct comparison between this and the Gulf War Syndrome? The denial on the part of the military, their refusal to not only respond to soldiers whose lives were being shredded -- couldn't sleep, couldn't keep marriages, couldn't get jobs, couldn't read newspapers because they were being told to take a pill, which had never been cleared by the FDA for animal use -- much less for human use, to protect them from what they thought Saddam [Hussein] was going to do and it turned out actually it was the wrong pill anyway. It was for the chemical he didn't have . And that's another story. But the refusal -- and I want to get into the military culture. Now I know the military is the next panel and I'm not going to be here in the next panel. But your a medic, Russell, and you're a good one and you've been through this and you come and you testify and you tell us about what you're going through and you've see the letter from [Secretary of the VA] Eric Shinseki that he sent this morning --

Russell Powell: Correct.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: -- which has some promise to it. He says he's going to give full pulmonary tests and, in West Virginia, we've discovered all of those people who weren't on the registry or weren't yet found. In Indiana, I'm not sure they have. They have a lot more of them but I'm not sure that they've discovered all of those. But when you got into that situation and you had the orange dust and you're a medic and you've got some stature and you go over to that place and you just lie down and try to give yourself an IV and all the rest of it, it-it says something about soldiers -- Well, first of all, it says something about the military's inability to deal with something that might either be embarrassing for them or for which they can't explain because they're busy fighting wars which is a rather large task. On the other hand, there are people who are doctors and who have medical responsibilities and they're not fighting wars, they're taking care of soldiers. There's something which prevents -- and I've heard this in other sessions about other types of problems -- soldiers taking on the military even as they suffer. And I want to talk about that for a moment. From your point of view, first of all, I understand the chain of command, I understand -- From my point of view, this is kind of a repeat, you went through this in 2003?

Russell Powell: Correct.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: And nobody discovered what you had until 2009. What-what is the culture problem we're dealing with here?

Russell Powell: Well the biggest problem is when you go to -- Or let me say this. I don't think the army knew fully -- was fully aware with the chemicals being on the ground through the KBR not actually providing-providing them with that information. And -- but the Army could have actually told us a little bit sooner whenever they did find out in August -- August of 2003. But they didn't tell any of the soldiers and there are still some of the soldiers that I've talked to who are government employees who just found out within a week that they were one of the guys that were exposed to chemicals and he's a government employee. And they're saying they can't find these gentlemen at and this is the Dept of the Army saying they can't find them. Well one of the officers, high-ranking officers from West Virginia was on an aircraft with him and this was a month or two ago. And still on that individual -- because I can't really tell you what he does for the government -- but, uh, he was talking to one of our generals and he told them that he was in the 1092nd Charlie Company. And the general just didn't say, "Well maybe you might want to look at this or look at that." And he was just dumbfounded until we linked up with that individual just through e-mails and trying to find all our soldiers because we're trying to do our best to find out where our people went and give them the heads up on their actual medical problems because a lot of them didn't have medical problems just didn't know why. And when you go to the VA or anything like that and it's so horrible because you say you're a medic and a flight medic and they kind of look down to you in a sense because they say, "Well you already know everything" or "Mister Know It All." That's how most physicians feel. And we're not even trying to do that, we're saying, "Hey, this is what's wrong with me. I'm pretty sick. I'm not -- I'm not faking a funk on you. I was doing medicine for a lot of years, I'm not trying to get over on you." And it's real frustrating because they're just brushing you off, brushing you off. Now there are a few doctors that are actually concerned and figure out the problems for mechanicals but most of them just kind of brush you off at the VA and it's really a hard obstacle to go through.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: Dr. Gibbs, do you have any thoughts about that? Why is it that people, strong men like Russell can't -- or they look down at a medic or they -- Some doctors are good, some doctors are bad. Whatever. For heaven's sakes, they knew they were going to send you to this camp, to Qarmat Ali and therefore they had to have been there. For the fact of there being some orange dust must not have escaped them unless they were color blind and so I don't understand that. There's a lack of thoroughness or a lack of concern or a lack of care. I mean if you saw the orange dust -- you now know and knowing what the world now knows six years later, it's not very complicated to me. They were entering a risky environment and chose not to know about it, not to warn about it, to take steps to clean it up or to do whatever. Now, Dr. Gibbs, I don't know if you have any thoughts on that?

Dr. Herman Gibbs: I think they had a significant exposure there. I mean, some of the soldiers described looking like orange powder dough nuts. And it was all over the ground. Statements of the soldiers at the previous hearing indicate that it was everywhere. Uhm, I think that -- and the bags read: Sodium Dichromate. It wasn't like guessing. So they should have known and it should have been reported and, again, I don't think there was a good understanding of what Sodium Dichormate is or what it's effects are. So I think there was a significant exposure that should have been addressed immediately as soon as they learned what it was. So I-I think that there was just, uh, uhm, I feel like it was dealt with uh, irresponsibly. I can't think of a better word.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: Well let me be -- let me be tougher about it then. Doesn't the military have a responsibility? And particularly when you're not in a huge situation which varies a lot. Like the Second World War, the First World War, you know, whatever. But you've got a particular type of territory where there are certain factors which are common for all that territory. Basra, I guess was where you were. And then there's this orange dust. I don't understand that. I don't understand why, if there are doctors who are in charge of the health, are they not in the deployment decision process in any way? Are they left out until somebody does get sick? Is there anybody here can answer that question?

Dr. Herman Gibbs: Again I think that the knowledge of industrial hygiene is uh we could do -- you could recommend pre-deployment physicals and post-deployment physicals and those kinds of things but if you don't understand what substances that you're dealing with those kind of physicals are not going to get the kind of information that you need. So you know I think this was um a lack of -- a lack of understanding of the industrial hygiene, of the environmental health. And then the follow-up to that was uh . . . You know -- It was just . . . sort of like "Don't worry about it, it's okay." And I think uh that, you know, that to me is just uh uh I don't want to say -- unconscionable> But I think it was uh -- This was -- This was a very dangerous substance, this was a very potent carcinogen, a very irritating substance. You don't have to look very far to find out about the effects of Sodium Dichromate. It's not some arcane chemical that we don't know about.

And, as Dr. Robert Miller pointed out, the military knew about it and issued a memo sent out for the soldiers exposed from the 101st Airborne [Fort Campbell] that said Sulfur Dioxide is not a problem it has no known serious side effects, it's not a carcinogen. They had measurements that the levels were toxic well above the military's baseline of thirteen parts per million" and a 62nd Brigade Medical Staff report that also insisted that the exposures were safe.

RECOMMENDED: "Iraq snapshot"
"The decay of 'democracy' in Iraq"
""Anticipate deployments to Iraq as far off as 2012""
"Little bombs"
"Will She Just Fall Down?"
"That's Just What You Are"
"no 1 is watching you now"
"I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas"
"Freeway Medicine Wheel"

"I Can't Get My Head Around It"
"Goodbye Caroline"
"J For Jules"
"World tour"

No comments: