Life in the military can mean being in harm's way, but not necessarily from bullets and explosions. For instance, some soldiers in Vietnam cleared trees and vegetation with the herbicide Agent Orange. The substance has been linked to cancers and other diseases, which the military didn't acknowledge until years later.
A similar situation may be brewing in Alabama. Some veterans of Ft. McClellan near Anniston say they're suffering from debilitating health problems and they're blaming their time spent at the base.
Veteran Marla Gehman used to run but now just doing some physical activity is kind of a big deal. About 15 years ago she developed fibromyalgia. It's manageable now but hasn't always been.
"I literally had to hang onto things getting out of bed in the morning because my ankles wouldn't move," said Gehman. "They were stiff, like they were fused together. I'd be reading a newspaper and go to change the page and my elbow is locked."
A few years later she developed bone loss in her mouth. A couple of teeth fell out and three more are lose. She also suffers from degenerative disc disease causing back pain.
Gehman says she has no family history of these conditions but didn't think of it as odd.
"I just chalked it up to this happens to some people," said Gehman.
Until last summer when she joined Facebook to connect with family. She stumbled upon a Facebook group of Ft. McClellan veterans. Gehman is a former military police officer. She was stationed at Ft. McClellan twice, for training in 1979 and again in the early 90s before settling in east Alabama. She says these veterans online described numerous health problems from fibromyalgia and reproductive issues to gastrointestinal disease and cancer.
The veterans suspected PCBs released by Monsanto. For decades, the company dumped tons of the chemicals around Anniston. PCBs have been linked to cancer and other illness. The controversy culminated in 2003 in a $700 million settlement with residents.
The veterans also looked to the military itself. Ft. McClellan was home to the Army Chemical School. They say they could have been exposed to sarin gas, VX nerve agent, asbestos and radiological contamination.
"Anyone who's been through basic, you spend a lot of time in the dirt and that sort of thing and drinking water that comes from who knows where," said Gehman. "It just kind of all came together for me. I wonder if that's why I have these illnesses."
Looking for Answers
Veteran Sue Frasier lives in Albany, New York, but did basic training at the base. She heads the Ft. McClellan Stakeholders Group. Frasier says she didn't make the connection between her health issues and Ft. McClellan until a 2002 expose on "60 Minutes" about the chemical dumping in Anniston. She says she's tried to get help from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Veterans Administration and Defense Department.
"We've been locked out at every stage of the process," said Frasier.
Ft. McClellan closed in 1999 and the settlement with Monsanto did not include veterans. Frasier says when she heard about the lawsuits she contacted lawyers but was rebuffed. One attorney involved in the Monsanto case says he doesn't remember any discussion of veterans. But adds if residents' and veterans' claims had been mingled, it would have made the case too complicated.
Frasier's work has produced a bill in Congress. It's sponsored by New York Democratic Representative Paul Tonko.
The bill would require the Veterans Administration to create a registry of everyone who served at Ft. McClellan from 1935 to 1999. The department would reach out to veterans about the effects of the toxic exposure and offer health exams.
"What it does, I think, is provide a proactive quality to the veterans who served there," said Tonko.
That's not to say the VA hasn't been treating these veterans. It has. But the bill would open up disability payments and other benefits. Sue Frasier says the bill is key to getting answers.
"It would allow the VA to officially make a conclusion about whether or not these Ft. McClellan veterans are in fact toxic exposure cases or probably so," said Frasier.
No Conclusive Link
The VA says it's already studied the claims of these veterans.
"And we're not able to find any recognized health hazard that could affect the population," said Paul Ciminera who directs the post-9/11 Environmental Health Program at the Veterans Administration.
In other words, there's not a link between the veterans' ailments and Ft. McClellan. Ciminera says those who lived off base may have been exposed to PCBs, but the military did not contribute to any toxic exposure.
Samford University Nursing Professor Debra Whisenant takes a similar view. With so many variables, establishing causation is not impossible but very, very difficult.
"Thousands of veterans that came through. Some may have only stayed a few months. Some may have stayed for a very long period of time," said Whisenant. "Their ages are different. Their histories are different. Exposures, disease process are very different. So it would be a large undertaking."
Just passing the bill appears to be a large undertaking as well. This is third time the legislation has been introduced and the current version remains in committee. The bill has more than 50 co-sponsors. The list doesn't include Republican Congressman Mike Rogers whose district includes Anniston. His office did not reply to requests for comment.
A Monsanto spokesman responded with a statement saying company officials were not aware the veterans suffered from health problems. They say while they have great respect for veterans, it's unlikely Monsanto was the cause.
Veteran Marla Gehman still thinks it is likely her health issues come from her time at Ft. McClellan.
"Unless you can show me for sure that I didn't get it there, then I have to assume that I got it there," Gehman said.
She says if she knew 35 years ago what she knows now, she might not have joined the military at all.
~ Andrew Yeager, March 11, 2014