On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs will examine the claims of hundreds of soldiers who say they were exposed to a dangerous chemical while guarding employees of a private contractor in Iraq. The contractor and the military are both accused of hiding the dangers that the soldiers faced.
At first, Russell Powell of Moundsville, W.Va., and his fellow soldiers weren't worried about a mysterious orange powder when they got to Iraq in 2003.
Powell says the powder coated their food, covered their clothes and entered their lungs as they protected workers of contractor KBR Inc. at a water plant.
"I don't think any of U.S. soldiers knew what it was," he says. "We just lay in it, you know, providing security and laying on the ground setting up fighting positions," he says. "We're all in just flap vests; KBR workers are just in T-shirts and think nothing of it."
'I Can't Be Active'
Now, Powell says he has severe breathing problems from being exposed to sodium dichromate. The chemical contains the same toxic substance that sickened a small town in California, made famous by the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich. Like many soldiers in his unit, Powell believes exposure to the chemical has ruined his life.
"I was a very active person, and now I can't even be active anymore," he says. "It's tough for my family also, because my kids look up to me as a coach, and I can't even do that anymore. It is sad."
In June, Powell and six other National Guard members from West Virginia filed a lawsuit against KBR. There are similar suits from soldiers in Oregon and Indiana.
This week, 30 more West Virginia Guard members filed another lawsuit. Their lawyer is state Sen. Jeff Kessler.
"The defendants KBR and/or its employees and those that were charged with carrying out the environmental studies knew early on, through blood tests and testing that had been performed on their own employees, that there were levels of sodium dichromate showing in their blood," Kessler says. "And yet there was no effort to notify the troops who were also similarly positioned out there."
Houston-based KBR says it's not responsible, because the chemical was already at the site when their workers arrived in Iraq. KBR declined an interview, but it released a statement saying that when the company discovered the chemical, it immediately notified the military.
Federal Government Gets Involved
It is the military's response, or lack thereof, that has led to an investigation by the Department of Defense's inspector general and to Thursday's Senate hearing.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) says the federal government hasn't done enough.
"You know, we have a responsibility to look closely at these exposures and to make sure that the Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs administration can maintain something called a collaborative relationship — that is, they talk to each other where medical information is shared," Rockefeller says. "That is not the case today."
After what happened during the first Gulf War, when the Pentagon initially dismissed thousands of returning service members' illnesses, Rockefeller says it is inexcusable now for the military to ignore veterans suffering from the effects of chemical exposure once again.