Friday, February 6, 2009

Oregon Guard contacting soldiers who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals

SALEM, Ore. -- The Oregon National Guard is reaching out in February to hundreds of soldiers possibly exposed to a hazardous chemical during a deployment to Iraq in 2003.

Based on records from the deployment, the ORNG believes more than 50 soldiers may have worked in an area with sodium dichromate, an anti-corrosive agent that poses health risks.

Strict regulations and policies govern the use of the potentially carcinogenic chemical in the U.S.; however, officials are concerned soldiers had exposure to mishandled sodium dichromate in the aftermath of initial U.S. operations.

Oregon's 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry sent more than 433 soldiers to the Middle East, with one company stationed in Saudi Arabia and two companies stationed in Kuwait, in March, 2003.

Some of the soldiers stationed in Kuwait entered Iraq to provide security for civilian contractors at the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility where the exposure may have occurred.

"Soldiers of 1st Bn., 162nd Inf. were assigned personal security details throughout southern Iraq to Kellogg, Brown and Root or workers restoring the oil infrastructure for the nation of Iraq," said Lt. Col. B. J. Prendergast, who deployed as the 1st Bn. 2nd Inf. executive officer. "This duty was done during daylight hours and covered many oil infrastructure sites in Southern Iraq."

Though about fifty soldiers possibly had direct exposure, the ORNG wants all soldiers on the deployment to have awareness of the situation because they may have had incidental exposure when soldiers returned from their missions at Qarmat Ali.

"We want the entire group to be aware they were potentially exposed," said Col. Michael Dunn, the Oregon Army National Guard State Surgeon. "It's possible they could have had secondary exposure in the living area from the soldiers who worked at the facility."

The notification process by the state is a personal concern for Lt. Col. Prendergast. He is one of the soldiers who went to the water treatment facility.

"My concern is identifying those soldiers that had a possible exposure and ensuring they understand the process and points of contact in case they need additional support or guidance," said Lt. Col. Prendergast.

Oregon provided security for KBR employees and contractors until the Indiana National Guard took over the mission in May of 2003. The soldiers from Indiana conducted the mission until September 2003.

The possible exposure first came to light after KBR employees testified before a Senate Committee in June 2008 during a hearing chaired by North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan.

According to published senate reports, KBR employees who worked at the Qarmat Ali plant testified their work exposed them to sodium dichromate, and they testified Indiana soldiers had similar exposure. It later came to light that Oregon preceded Indiana on the security mission as Indiana Senator Evan Bayh called for a more detailed review from the Department of the Army of what actually happened.

All potentially exposed veterans can receive a comprehensive Gulf War Registry examination at their nearest Veterans Administration medical center. Health care providers at VA hospitals are trained to respond to environmental health issues perform these exams.

According to ORNG officials, current and former soldiers of 1st Bn., 162nd Inf. should receive a letter in early February. For more information, soldiers should contact their chain of command or the project officer, Staff Sgt. Jerry Jepson at (503) 584-2296.

Story authored by Maj. Michael S. Braibish, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs Office
Posted by Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy, Oregon Military Department Emerging Digital Media Manager

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