Sick veterans who served at shuttered, toxic Army base turn to Congress, VA for help
WASHINGTON – Sue Frasier spent the first six months of her military career at Alabama's Fort McClellan. But that short stint -- 44 years ago at an Army base the EPA later would find so toxic it would shut it down -- was all it took for her to start getting sick, she says.
Her problems began shortly after completing boot camp in 1970 at the Anniston, Ala., base. Today, she says she's coping with asthma, a life-threatening gastrointestinal disease that required surgery, and fibromyalgia that results in long-term pain and tenderness in her joints and muscles.
"It hurts everywhere, but at least I can still walk and talk," she told FoxNews.com.
Frasier is among thousands of veterans who were stationed at the former Army base who believe they were exposed to dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. They repeatedly have turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help, seeking aid for medical treatment and a formal study of their ailments -- but say their pleas have been largely ignored or buried in red tape for decades. Today, they're looking to fresh leadership at the VA, and allies in Congress, to finally take on their case.
The true cause of the veterans' ailments has never been officially determined. Fort McClellan housed several Army components, including a division for chemical weapons training and research. But many veterans suspect they were sickened by chemicals dumped near Anniston by Monsanto Co., which had facilities in the area and disposed of chemicals near the base.
The veterans, while not engaged in any legal action against the government, have tried to draw attention to their cause before by lobbying and social media advocacy including Facebook pages describing their conditions. Their reported illnesses and ailments range from heart issues to cancer to reproductive problems.
Frasier's military career would eventually lead to a job as a telecommunications clerk at the Department of Veterans Affairs in D.C. There, she took part in history. On Aug. 8, 1974, Frasier was tapped to send out the message to military personnel across all branches of service that President Richard Nixon had resigned.
“It was all pretty neat,” she told FoxNews.com.
But these days, when she speaks about her time in the military, her voice fills with frustration.
“When I go down [to Washington] to look for answers, I get crickets chirping in the woods,” Frasier said.
Still, she is not giving up.
Frasier, who now lives in Albany, N.Y., boarded a bus to Washington earlier this week and on Thursday afternoon, met with Christopher O’Connor, the VA’s acting assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs. Frasier says she is cautiously optimistic about her face-to-face with O'Connor, given the agency’s recent promises to rebuild public trust following a scandal-scarred summer that culminated with the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
In July, Robert McDonald, former Proctor & Gamble Co. CEO, took the VA helm. Since then, he has been busy touring various VA facilities around the country and trying to change the agency's image.
Frasier and other veterans want to put McDonald’s pledges for more transparency and better treatment of vets to the test. But they say they need Congress' help.
Two pieces of legislation have been introduced to deal with the veterans' medical claims. A proposed Senate bill would establish a national center for research on the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions of the descendants of veterans exposed to toxic substances during service in the Armed Forces. The bill has not advanced.
Over on the House side, a bill more specific to Frasier and similar veterans' claims, and backed by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., would require the VA to create a registry of everyone who served at Fort McClellan from 1935 to 1999. It then would require the department to reach out to those veterans and offer health exams and information about the effects of toxic exposure. It also would open up disability payments to the veterans.
The House bill, though, has been stuck in congressional gridlock for five years and hasn't made its way out of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
“They are the brick wall standing in our way,” Frasier said.
Tonko says he understands her exasperation.
“This is a critical bill that deserves an up-or-down vote and we continue to work overtime to get this passed,” he told FoxNews.com. “Our nation promises our troops the world when they sign up and enter the service, and this is one of many arenas where a very substantial portion of veterans seem to have been forgotten.”
Currently, Tonko’s bill has 78 co-sponsors: 59 Democrats and 19 Republicans.
Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, whose district includes Anniston, has not signed on.
Beginning in the 1930s, Fort McClellan was home to the Military Police as well as those who signed up for the Army’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Corps. It was also the primary training campus for the Women’s Army Corps.
When pressed in the past, the VA has said it’s looked into the Fort McClellan claims and has not found a conclusive link between the health issues vets reported and toxic exposure in the area. But in 1999, the base was deemed so toxic the Environmental Protection Agency labeled it a hazardous site and forced it to shut down, though it, too, did not conclude where the toxins came from.
While veterans no longer are housed there, parts of the base still are used as a training facility by local, state and federal agencies.
Many veterans who have lived or worked near the military campus believe their ailments were caused by PCBs. In 2003, more than 20,000 Anniston residents sued the Monsanto Co. and Solutia Inc. over PCB contamination. The companies reached a $700 million settlement in the class-action suit with residents, but the military members stationed on the base were not part of it.
PCBs are manmade chemicals that once were used as insulants and coolants for transformers, heat exchangers and various kinds of electrical equipment. They can be colorless and have no smell or taste, according to the EPA. Many believe that they were contaminated through the air.
PCBs were commercialized in North America in the late 1920s by companies like Monsanto because of their high boiling points, chemical stability and electrical insulating properties. In 1976, Congress banned the manufacture of PCBs in the U.S. because of their toxicity. In 1979, the EPA phased them out.
More than two decades would pass before worldwide production of PCBs came to a halt via the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. But by then, many argue, the damage already had been done.
PCBs have been linked to melanoma, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, and brain and breast cancer. An investigation by CBS' “60 Minutes” brought the Fort McClellan and Monsanto issue to light in 2002. Internal company memos reportedly showed that Monsanto had known about the dangers of PCBs when they dumped the chemicals.
When contacted by FoxNews.com Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord distanced the company from the two bills in Congress.
“We have great respect for our veterans and it is tragic whenever people suffer from health problems,” Lord said. “However, it is not clear to us that these bills have a connection to Monsanto.”
Calls to the VA and Rogers’ office for comment were not immediately returned.