by Julie Sullivan
The soldiers worried about Saddam Hussein loyalists, not the dust.
Dust coated the Oregon Army National Guardsmen’s combat boots and caked their skin as they protected Halliburton KBR contractors restoring oil flow in Iraq in 2003. Dust poofed from the soldiers’ uniforms as they crowded into vans at the end of the day and shared tents at night.
When the dust blew onto Spc. Larry Roberta’s ready-to-eat meal, he rinsed the chicken patty with his canteen water and ate it.
Six months later, doctors discovered the flap into Roberta’s stomach had disintegrated. Six years later, the Marine and former police officer can no longer walk to the mailbox or work.
Another Oregon soldier, Sgt. Nicholas Thomas, died of complications of leukemia at age 21. Three others have reported lung problems to headquarters. Five more told The Oregonian they suffer chronic coughs, rashes and immune system disorders.
The same Oregon Guard soldiers who went into Iraq without adequate body armor or up-armored Humvees face another dubious first: exposure to hexavalent chromium, which greatly increases their risk of cancer and other diseases. It was in the orange and yellow dust spread over half the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant by fleeing Saddam supporters.
Scientists call the carcinogen a Trojan horse because the damage may not be immediately obvious. Over time, people can develop different cancers, breathing problems, stomach ulcers or damage to the digestive tract.
"This is our Agent Orange," says Scott Ashby, who served in the Oregon Guard.
Guard tries to notify soldiers
Ninety-three Oregon soldiers may still not know that they have been exposed to hexavalent chromium. The Oregon Guard sent registered letters notifying them Friday, six years after their deployment.
Rob Finch, The OregonianLarry Roberta stands outside his home with his wife, Michelle, and Norman, a green wing macaw they rescued. Roberta cares for dozens of rescued birds. He resocialized the once-vicious Norman by playing a ukulele and singing to him. "We think Norman was abused and angry. Together they figured out how not to be angry," Michelle Roberta says.
Officials say they didn’t learn of the problem themselves until November, when the Army, spurred by lawsuits in Indiana and Texas and a subsequent Senate investigation, alerted the Oregon Guard. The suits claim KBR ignored both a United Nations report and its own employees’ warnings about the danger.
The Oregon Guard has sent 286 letters to soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry Division, about possible exposure. Fewer than 20 have responded to the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Guard.
The 1-162 was broken up in an Army reorganization in 2006. And fewer than half of the soldiers who were deployed are still in the Guard. Forty letters have been returned unopened. The Portland VA’s chief environmental-agent doctor has seen only four soldiers.
Larry and Michelle Roberta of Aumsville received the Guard’s letter Feb. 26 notifying them of his possible exposure. They set the letter aside. Roberta has known since July 2003 when an Army medic recorded exposure to hexavalent chromium at the water plant.
"We knew he was exposed since the very beginning," says Michelle Roberta, 38. "I sent a very healthy man over there. He did not come back."
"Restore Iraqi Oil"
The 1-162 arrived at its base of operations in Kuwait on April 18, 2003, and within weeks, the soldiers from Gresham and McMinnville were assigned to escort and protect KBR contractors on a mission called "Restore Iraqi Oil." Soldiers also came from combined units from Hillsboro and St. Helens.
Houston-based Kellogg, Brown & Root Services, then a subsidiary of Halliburton, won the contract to get the oil flowing in Iraq. Repairing the water treatment plant, which maintained pressure in nearby oil wells, was a top priority.
Soldiers, officers and the undersecretary of the Army’s manager for the project say that Oregon platoons rotated from Kuwait into Iraq in three to four day intervals from April 2003 until June 2003. Oregon soldiers met KBR workers at a rest stop on the main highway into Iraq, then accompanied them in the contractors’ SUVs to pipelines, oil fields or the water treatment plant.
Courtesy of Larry RobertaSpc. Larry Roberta poses in the Basra oil fields near a water treatment plant in Iraq in 2003. He began wearing the scarf for the dust while patrolling at the plant. "He doesn’t feel his service was in vain," says his wife, Michelle. "The Iraqis needed help. He did his job."
Just weeks after the Indiana Guard replaced the Oregonians, a new KBR safety officer arrived at the water treatment plant at Qarmat Ali. Ed Blacke was shocked by the widespread orange and yellow dust piled feet deep in places. The powder, he learned, was a corrosion fighter that contained hexavalent chromium. Soon he had sinus, throat and breathing problems, and found that 60 percent of the soldiers and staff at Qarmat Ali had identical symptoms. KBR managers told him it was "a nonissue."
Blacke described the sequence of events to a Senate committee in June 2008.
According to a subsequent Senate query, KBR did not test the site until August 2003 or notify the Army until September 2003. The Indiana Guard learned of the contamination when KBR managers showed up in protective suits. KBR closed the plant shortly after.
In October 2003, the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine evaluated 137 soldiers and others at the site. They reported abnormalities including eye, nose and lung irritation that "could also be due to dehydration, diet supplements, previous conditions or heavy workouts." The Army also concluded that the low levels of exposure that were found meant soldiers were not expected to suffer long-term health consequences.
Finally, the Army concluded, KBR had fulfilled its contract. It paved over the contamination, then completed the water-treatment center repairs in 2006. The oil was flowing.
Health issues persist
In March 2008, nine KBR employees, including whistle-blower Blacke, sued KBR for damages. Under federal law, the case went to arbitration last week. In December, 16 Indiana Guardsmen filed their own lawsuit, contending KBR "disregarded and downplayed the extreme danger." The Indiana commander is dying of a rare lung cancer that the VA has ruled is related to being at the water treatment plant.
• Exposure to 40 micrograms of hexavalent chromium per cubic meter — about the size of a grain of salt in about a cubic yard — has shown a high increase in not only lung cancer, but also leukemia and stomach, brain, renal, bladder and bone cancers.
• Erin Brockovich constructed the famous California case against PG&E because of contamination by hexavalent chromium.
• The chemical is the toxic component of the corrosion fighter sodium dichromate.
• Hexavalent chromium is part of the contamination problem at most Superfund sites.
KBR has denied any assertion that it harmed employees or soldiers.
Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., have challenged the Army’s handling of the issue, even after an independent panel backed the Army. The senators also want to know why some Guard members — including some from Oregon — still haven’t been notified.
Col. William Farthing, the Army’s project manager, says officials are trying. "We still have soldiers exposed to a carcinogen, and if they develop any health issues related to that we want to make sure they get help." He urges the Oregon Guard to adopt Indiana’s model in coordinating with the VA.
But the Oregon Guard is busy. The medical command is readying half the state’s soldiers — about 3,000 — to return to Iraq this summer. And they are still determining who served at the water treatment plant. Because in the chaos of the early days of the war in 2003, no one kept an archive of names of who served where, or day-by-day events.
Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell says the first Oregon Guardsmen sent into combat in 50 years paid a price.
"This was the low point of the Army’s care of reservists, no doubt about it," says Caldwell, commander of the Oregon State Defense Forces.
"The strategy was driven by former Secretary of Defense (Donald) Rumsfeld and (Deputy Defense Secretary) Paul Wolfowitz, and the responsibility goes right back to them. They thought we were going into Panama and we’d all be home in a week."
From fit to frail
When Larry Roberta finally did come home, Michelle barely recognized him.
For Larry Roberta, the military had always been a way out. As a foster child, he joined the National Guard for rent money. He served three years in the Marine Corps, then went to work as a security officer and then a police officer. Detective and forensic classes persuaded him to pursue computer forensics. He rejoined the Guard in 2001 so he could afford college. And he kept working as a technician at Xerox in Wilsonville.
At 38, he scored at the top of every physical category in the Guard’s exam. His only medications: ibuprofen and Tums. He left for Iraq tan, fit and in his prime.
Within weeks of arriving and patrolling the water treatment plant, Roberta had severe chest pains, sore throats, coughing attacks and wheezing, according to his medical records. Although KBR and the Army did not move to close the plant or alert the soldiers and civilians until weeks later, as early as July 18, 2003, an Army medic wrote in Larry Roberta’s chart: "Possible irritation of lung from reflux/inhalation air toxicity (sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali WTP.)"
Roberta’s commanders also were concerned, hounding him to get medical care. When the Army began investigating exposure two months later, his first sergeant thrust him at doctors: "This is the soldier you have to see."
In December 2003, Roberta was evacuated to Madigan Army Hospital to repair the disintegrated stomach opening. They also diagnosed reactive airway disorder, upper chest pain and nasal polyps, noting his exposure to hexavalent chromium.
Then he came home. Michelle Roberta noticed other changes. He erupted at local boys on bicycles. The former policeman who despised domestic violence, grabbed her by the throat. She hit him with a Dirt Devil and went to the phone book for a therapist. After he climbed over the cubicle at work angry at a colleague, he called his wife: "I need help."
With the help of an Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs counselor, he was rated 100 percent disabled by lung disorders, tinnitus and post-traumatic stress disorder. He needs two inhalers to breathe and swallows eight kinds of pills a day for upper chest pain, migraines, high blood pressure, mood swings and a mystifying low level of testosterone.
"The worst part was, I couldn’t figure out what was going on," he says. At one point, he plotted to kill himself — "right down to the noose."
Michelle Roberta intervened. "I have ESP about these things."
Rob Finch, The OregonianNorman, a rescued green wing macaw sits on Larry Roberta’s shoulder after a visit to S&D Exotic Bird Rescue in Keizer.
With their son Larry, 20, living at home, Michelle, a dialysis technician, has held the family together, working full time and meeting with the landlord and creditors to cover bills. She uses their pugs Jimi and Frank, who respond when a mood is coming.
And she introduced her husband to Donna Burleigh of S&D Exotic Bird Rescue in Keizer. Larry Roberta began working with abandoned birds and the couple have since moved 23 cockatoos, macaws and others into their home in a dizzying array of squawks and color.
Larry Roberta has begun visiting schools with his birds. He is trying, he says, to find purpose in his new life. Many of the birds are so traumatized they have plucked their own feathers and are unadoptable. They perch, beneath gorgeous heads, like whole chickens ready for the pot.
"They’re misfits," he says, "like I am."
— Julie Sullivan; [email protected]