September 26, 2008

Guard Exposure to Be Eyed

By BRYAN CORBIN Courier & Press Statehouse bureau (317) 631-7405 or [email protected]

A top U.S. Army official has agreed to investigate how Indiana National Guard soldiers got exposed to a toxic chemical in Iraq in 2003 and whether the military's medical screenings of the affected soldiers at the time were adequate.

The review panel appointed by U.S. Secretary of the Army Pete Geren also will look at whether the Army's oversight was sufficient of a private contractor that operated the Iraq facility where the toxic exposure happened.

Geren described the review in a response to Sen. Evan Bayh, D- Ind., who on Sept. 12 wrote to Geren and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressing concern about the timeliness and quality of the military's previous medical screenings of the exposed soldiers.

"The review panel will address the policy and procedures for hazardous exposure and post-deployment health assessment. It will review the actions taken to identify and follow up on the military and (Department of Defense) personnel who may have been exposed, including the members of the Indiana Army National Guard," Geren wrote in a letter to Bayh dated Monday.

In 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 139 soldiers from the Indiana Nation

al Guard's 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry, based in Jasper, were sent to guard the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in Basra, Iraq. Despite assurances that the orange, sandlike dust strewn throughout the plant was only a "mild irritant," the substance later was discovered to be sodium dichromate, a known carcinogen, Bayh's office said.

An industrial chemical used to remove pipe corrosion, sodium dichromate can cause cancers of the lungs and respiratory tract, medical references say.

Although the toxic exposure happened five years ago, the adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, Maj. Gen. Martin Umbarger, was notified of it only in June, through a phone call from U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota.

Dorgan's Senate committee had held hearings into the actions of private contractor KBR in Iraq.

KBR employees who had worked at the Qarmat Ali plant and were sickened by sodium dichromate testified Indiana soldiers may have been exposed to it, too, through breathing or skin contact, published reports said.

Bayh has questioned whether medical screenings the Indiana soldiers received in 2003 or 2004, at the end of their deployment, were the right type of tests to detect that type of toxic exposure.

Geren's letter said he appointed two assistant secretaries of the Army to lead a senior-level review panel into the incident; they are to complete their work within 60 days.

Since the private firm KBR was under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to operate the Qarmat Ali plant, the corps' level of contract oversight also will be reviewed, Geren's letter stated.

"Our understanding from the Army is that they are going to be examining whether the right testing was done, whether the right standards were used and whether the procedures need to be updated for dealing with exposure to hazardous chemicals," Bayh's spokesman Eric Kleiman said.

"The preliminary indications are that the Army is taking this seriously."

Bayh recently introduced Senate legislation to create a registry of current and former military personnel exposed to hazardous chemicals in Iraq so that they can be provided for medically, similar to the Agent Orange registry for veterans exposed to a toxic herbicide during the Vietnam War.

If the legislation is not heard during the current Congress, Kleiman said, it will be Bayh's top legislative priority in 2009.

The Indiana National Guard has sought to notify all 139 Guard members who were stationed at the Iraq plant as well as a larger group of 660 soldiers who might have been in the vicinity so medical evaluations and tests can be arranged.

The Guard set up a toll-free number for current and former soldiers who suspect they were exposed: (800) 237-2850, ext. 3128.

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