Larry Roberta's every breath is a painful reminder of his time in Iraq. He can't walk a block without gasping for air. His chest hurts, his migraines sometimes persist for days and he needs pills to help him sleep.
James Gentry came home with rashes, ear troubles and a shortness of breath. Later, he developed lung cancer.
David Moore's postwar life turned into a harrowing medical mystery: nosebleeds and labored breathing that made it impossible to work, much less speak. His search for answers ended last year when he died of lung disease at age 42.
What these three men — one sick, one dying, one dead — had in common is they were National Guard soldiers on the same stretch of wind-swept desert in Iraq during the early months of the war in 2003. They and hundreds of other Guard members from Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia were protecting workers hired by a subsidiary of the giant contractor, KBR Inc., to rebuild an Iraqi water treatment plant.
The area, as it turned out, was contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a potent, sometimes deadly chemical linked to cancer and other devastating diseases. No one disputes that, but that's where the agreement ends. Among the issues now rippling from the courthouse to Capitol Hill are whether the chemical made people sick, when KBR knew it was there and how the company responded.
The case has raised broader questions about private contractors and health risks in war zones, says Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who plans hearings on the matter: "How should we treat exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals as a threat to our soldiers? How seriously should that threat be taken? What is the role of private contractors? What about the potential conflict between their profit motives and taking all steps necessary to protect our soldiers?"
Dozens of National Guard veterans have sued KBR and two subsidiaries, accusing them of minimizing and concealing the chemical's dangers, then downplaying nosebleeds and breathing problems as nothing more than sand allergies or a reaction to desert air.
KBR denies wrongdoing. In a statement, the company said it found the chemical at the Qarmat Ali plant, restricted access, cleaned it up and "did not knowingly harm troops."
This isn't the first claim that toxins have harmed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; there have been allegations involving lead, depleted uranium and sarin gas.
It also isn't the first challenge to KBR, whose billions of dollars of war-related contracts have been the subject of congressional scrutiny and legal claims. Suits recently filed in several states against KBR and Halliburton Co. — KBR's parent company until 2007 — assert open-air pits used to burn refuse in Iraq and Afghanistan caused illnesses and death. KBR says it's reviewing the charges. Halliburton maintains it was improperly named and expects to be dismissed from the case.
This case stems from the chaotic start of the war in 2003 when a KBR subsidiary was hired to restart the treatment plant, which had been looted and virtually stripped bare. The Iraqis had used hexavalent chromium to prevent pipe corrosion at the plant, which produced industrial water used in oil production. It's the same chemical linked to poisonings in California in a case made famous in the movie "Erin Brockovich."
Hexavalent chromium — a toxic component of sodium dichromate — can cause severe liver and kidney damage. It is also "one of the most potent carcinogens known to man," said Max Costa, chairman of New York University's Department of Environmental Medicine. Costa provided a deposition for 10 civilian workers who settled an arbitration case over the poison at the water plant.
KBR says studies show only that industrial workers exposed to the chemical for more than two years have an increased risk of cancer — and in this case, soldiers were at the plant just days or months. The company also notes air-quality studies concluded the Indiana Guard soldiers were not exposed to high levels of hexavalent chromium.
Costa says those tests were done when the wind was not blowing. Both soldiers and former workers say there were days when strong gusts kicked up ripped-open bags of the chemical, creating a yellow-orange haze.
"I was spitting blood, and I was not the only one doing that," recalls Danny Langford, who worked for the KBR subsidiary.
Larry Roberta, a 44-year-old former Oregon National Guard member, remembers 137-degree heat and dust everywhere. He sat on a bag of the chemical, unaware it was dangerous. "This orange crud blew up in your face, your eyes and on our food," he says.
Roberta says he immediately felt sick to his stomach. He also reported coughing spells and agonizing chest pains that "went all the way through my back. ... Every day I went there, I had something weird going on."
Russell Kimberling, a former Indiana National Guard captain, had severe sinus troubles that forced his medical evacuation to Germany. After returning, he became alarmed one August day in 2003 while escorting some officials to the plant in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
"I jumped out of the truck and I turned around and they (KBR staff) had full chemical gear on," he says. "I looked at some of my soldiers and said, 'This can't be very good.' ''
Ed Blacke, hired as plant health, safety and environmental coordinator, says he became worried after workers started having breathing problems and a former colleague sent him an internal KBR memo outlining the chemical's dangers. Blacke says he complained, was labeled a troublemaker and resigned under pressure.
Kimberling is among nearly 50 current or former Guard members — most from Indiana, a smaller number from Oregon and West Virginia — who've sued.
Mike Doyle, a Houston lawyer representing the soldiers and civilians, maintains KBR knew as early as May 2003 the chemical was there, but didn't close the site until that September. The lawsuit cites minutes of an August 2003 KBR meeting that mentions "serious health problems at the water treatment plant" and notes "almost 60 percent of the people now exhibit the symptoms."
In a recent Associated Press interview, KBR chairman William Utt said the company has been unfairly targeted for its military work.
As for the water plant, KBR says once it learned of the chemical, it took precautions to protect workers, notified the Army Corps of Engineers and led the cleanup. It says the Corps had previously deemed the area safe.
KBR also points to Army tests of Indiana Guard soldiers that showed no medical problems that could be linked to exposure, as well as a military board review that found it unlikely anyone would suffer long-term medical consequences.
But Bayh and Doyle say those tests were done too late to be valid and note that soil tests were taken after the contaminated area was covered.
The Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon National Guards have sent hundreds of letters to soldiers notifying them of possible contamination and urging them to seek medical attention.
Bayh has introduced a bill calling for a medical registry that would require the Department of Defense to notify all military members of exposure to potential toxins and ensure their medical care. A similar measure that only mandates only notification was approved last month in the U.S. House as an amendment to the defense authorization bill.