Ft. McClellan Alabama no longer exists as an Army base, at least not officially. In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency shut down the base, labeling it a hazardous site. The area is so toxic that it is illegal to sink a well in the surrounding communities.
Even though the base no longer houses military personnel, portions of the site are still used as a training facility and as a depot. The training conducted there is by various entities, including local, state and federal agencies. I wonder if they issue warnings about the site before candidates or employees are sent there, or if they, like the tens of thousands of veterans who once called Ft. McClellan home, get to find out about the contamination through word of mouth.
Next to Ft. McClellan is a small town called Anniston, Alabama. Even if you never heard of the base, the name of the community may ring a bell. In 2003, chemical giant Monsanto settled a case with more than 20,000 residents of the town for $700 million dollars. The suit alleged the company, now operating locally as Solutia, contaminated the water, soil and air so thoroughly and so recklessly with PCB’s and other toxins for decades, 60 Minutes and others have called the area the most toxic place on the planet. One of the others making that claim is the EPA, which has listed the community at the top of its Superfund Sites in need of cleanup.
The settlement has been good for the people of Anniston, but realistically it is small recompense for the sicknesses and deaths this community has suffered. There has also been a dark side to this settlement as well. The terms of the specifically exclude military personnel who were stationed at Ft. McClellan.
The thinking behind this intentional omission, at least publicly, had been that the military and the VA would take care of it’s own. The less public but acknowledged answer is that Monsanto was and is responsible for the PCB contamination, but not for the plethora of other toxins to which the base personnel were exposed. In Monsanto’s defense, they are right.
Sadly, our military does not have the best track record when it comes to protecting the health of it’s personnel. Agent Orange comes to mind. Interestingly, that substance plays a role here as well.
Through the decades of it’s existence Ft. McClellan served many purposes. At the end of the Spanish-American War, it was called Camp Shipp and the mountainous area was viewed as an ideal backdrop for an artillery range, though those hostilities ended before the site was fully utilized. In 1917, Ft. McClellan was formally established as a mobilization center for quickly training men for WWl.
The base was best known, however, for four functions through the years. It was one of the Army’s primary weapons depots and disposal sites from the 1930’s on, a function it still serves today, and as the base to which you were sent if you joined the Military Police. If you had signed up or agreed to enter the Army’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Corps, you also spent time at Ft. McClellan. Sadly Ft. Mac, as it is colloquially known was also home to the WAC, the Women’s Army Corp, until that unit was officially disbanded and absorbed into the regular Army in 1978. It is last of these four uses that are most significant when discussing the catastrophic long term effects on personnel who were exposed to the toxic soup that was and is Ft. McClellan.
At the end of WWl the world became aware of the horrors of using chemical weapons, but it took decades for the most commonly known agent, Mustard Gas to be eliminated. Since the end of the War to End All Wars, ever more deadly and dangerous chemicals have been developed, stockpiled, used and sometimes destroyed. One of the places these later generations of chemical weapons as well as that old standby Mustard Gas was stored was Ft. McClellan.
That particular toxin, along with Agent Orange, the less well-known but even more toxic Agent Blue, Sarin, VX and a host of other man-made chemical killers were all stored at Ft. McClellan while they awaited their turn in the incinerator. Most spent their time sitting patiently in their containers waiting for destruction, but many of these substances foiled attempts at containment and leaked into the soil, creeks, streams and ultimately the aquifers that fed the wells of Ft. McClellan. Now add in the depleted uranium that is the shell of warheads and missiles and our old friend PCB’s from neighboring Monsanto and a fuller picture of the contents of the toxic soup that comprise the ground and water in and surrounding Ft. McClellan begins to take shape.
The devastating effects on the human body of these chemicals are well known. These effects were the purpose of their development. But, not even the maddest scientists operating in the darkest days of Nazi death camps ever conceived of exposing the human body to all of these toxins at once. Happily, or sadly, depending on how you view it, such experiments if conceived would not need to be carried out as there are tens of thousands of United States soldiers who have been so exposed. Ironically though, the effects aren’t officially known. Because the Army and the VA have denied these soldiers diagnoses or even treatment for the diseases from which they suffer, claiming their illnesses are not service related.
Each of these toxins produce known diseases and reactions, even with the most minimal exposure to just a portion of their constituent chemical compounds. Many of these disorders are chromosomal, meaning future generations are effected. That is, if a human being after exposure to some of these agents is left capable of reproducing.
For the past several months, I have been in contact with hundreds of veterans of Ft. McClellan. In every case, they are horrified to find out the illnesses they have been suffering with, often for decades, could have been predicted based on their time at Fort Mac.
The majority of the women veterans suffered a mind numbing, soul crushing six, eight, ten or more miscarriages. The children they were able to bear full term, or at least to a live birth, more often than not suffer a horrifying, yet predictable range of abnormalities, disabilities and medical conditions. Because many of these toxins work on the chromosomal level, nearly as many men fathered children who went on to bear children of their own with abnormalities, disabilities and medical conditions known to be caused by exposure to these chemical agents.
Exactly how many service men and women, much less their offspring, have been affected remains unknown. This is due to the current policy of not informing those who served at this base of their exposure. Word of mouth, veteran to veteran, has been the primary source of information. Many have banded together on social media, started webpages and even put up videos on YouTube, in an effort to advise their fellow Ft. Mac survivors.
“I had just thought I had drawn an unlucky hand in health”, is a common response of those veterans that have been reached.
“I had a radical hysterectomy at 28 years old, after more miscarriages than I can count.”
“I’ve always wondered if I had been exposed to something, ‘cause it made no sense that all my teeth just fell out by the time I was 35.”
“The doctors can’t tell me what is wrong. They call it peripheral neuropathy, but I don’t have diabetes. All I know is there are no drugs that can counter the pain, and it is getting worse.”
“I’ve been fit and active, eating right my whole life. I’m not overweight and no one in my family has ever had diabetes, but suddenly, I have it.”
“I’ve had two different cancers. Now, there is something weird with my bones, they seem to be just dissolving. The doctors said this is not a reaction to the chemo. In fact, they discovered the issue with my bones when they first started me on chemo and radiation.”
“I have something called spinal stenosis.”
“I have every sign and symptom of Agent Orange, but I never went to ‘Nam.”
These are just some of the more common ailments reported in these online groups. Each time someone posts, there are dozens of “me, too” responses, followed up with references to all sorts of documents so each person can be their own healthcare advocate. Suggestions of how best to talk to your doctor are always followed by “I hope you have other than a VA doctor.”
It is really sad that these veterans, as soon as they tell their VA caseworker they are a Ft. McClellan vet, are routinely told that their medical issues will not be covered or treated by the VA. Despite mountains of data proving a direct correlation between these toxins and the diseases for which they are seeking treatment, the VA denies case after case.
This is the part of the story that makes the least sense. The United States Army closed the base because it was declared a toxic site by the EPA. The Department of Defense, the VA and every other government entity acknowledges exposure to these toxins have detrimental effects on the human body. Yet, soldiers who were stationed at this base cannot get the care they need.
The story gets worse.
For the past three years, there has been a bill in one form or another called the “Ft. McClellan Health Registry Act” (current incarnation is HR411) sitting in the Health Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Basically, this bill calls for the VA to grant what is known as ‘presumptive status’ for those who are seeking treatment and had served at Ft. McClellan.
The all-important ‘presumptive status’ these veterans seek and which is required to receive treatment simply means that because of their time at Ft. McClellan, it is acknowledged they may have, or develop a range of illness, diseases and disorders. This is the same status that Viet Nam Era veterans fought for decades to get in regard to Agent Orange exposure. It is also what was just granted to the hundreds of thousands who were exposed to the open-air burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and at bases around the world.
That is all these veterans are asking for, to be treated for the illnesses they now suffer as a direct result of their service to our country.
“They’re just waiting for us to die. We are dying. Not even aging and dying, just dying before our time. You hear about how overburdened the VA is, so I guess this is their solution. Just wait for us all to die off so they don’t have to take care of us.”
Note – all of the remarks in quotations are things I have been told or seen written by members of the various Ft. McClellan social media groups. With rare exception, these vets have asked not to be named, in fear that the few services they have been able to get, the claims they have been allowed to file will be denied. That is the saddest part of all.
After months of research and scores of calls and emails to the members of the subcommittee, there are still very basic questions unanswered. Party politics and posturing are definitely playing a role, and both sides of the aisle are guilty. Some have told me that because the chair is Republican and the original sponsor of the bill is a Democrat, unless or until a Republican member of the committee cosponsors the bill, it will not even be put on the agenda. Others have told me that unless one of the cosponsors submits a cost analysis and identifies an offset, the bill will not be put on the agenda.
I’d like to remind both sides that the oath these service members took, and indeed, the Constitution they swore to uphold and defend is neither Republican nor Democrat. These are veterans of the United States of America, not pawns in the ever-running game of chess these politicians seem to love to play.
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