Fort McClellan is the former home of the U.S. Army Military Police and U.S. Army Chemical Schools. Located in Anniston, Ala., it was one of the largest training posts the Army had to offer before the Environmental Protection Agency closed the fort down in 1999. Nearly 500,000 men were trained there during WWII, and hundreds of thousands of others used this installation to hone their military skills during the post’s 82-year history.
Countless brave men and women spilled blood, sweat and tears over the training grounds. Everyone lived in close quarters and prepared for combat abroad — much like any other fort. But throughout the fort’s long run, there was a dark secret that nobody — save a chemical company — knew about.
Between 1933 and 1999, Fort McClellan was constantly exposed to major biochemical health hazards, including ionizing radiation and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Think about that for a second.
The people living at or around Fort McClellan were soaking up PCBs and other caustic chemicals through the air, water, soil and wildlife, all over a 66-year span. Soldiers were laying in them on the firing range, they filled their canteens with them during “hydration formations,” and they breathed them in while they ran “Cardiac Hill.” And they never suspected a thing.
Something Smells Fishy
But chemical and agribusiness giant Monsanto did know. And they knew for nearly 40 years.
Studies by Monsanto began in 1966, when they tasked a University of Mississippi biologist with testing the water. He placed bluegill into one of the streams to test the water’s effect on wildlife, and the results were startling. The fish became disoriented within 10 seconds, he reported, and were dead within four minutes. Monsanto filed the report away, never raising the concerns to environmental officials. Many more tests would be done as time passed, but nothing was ever announced publicly.
It was the disposal processes that lead to health concerns. As Monsanto processed the now-banned industrial coolants known as PCBs at a local factory, they routinely discharged toxic waste into Anniston creeks and dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into oozing open-pit landfills, only to be discovered years later during excavations by builders. Other excess Monsanto chemicals also made their way into Anniston’s environment, including different kinds of dioxins and herbicides, including the infamous Agent Orange. The effects of these chemicals were far-reaching.
Service members and civilians living in the area have since developed serious health conditions, including: various cancers, autoimmune disease, heart disease and diabetes. But these health concerns weren’t limited to the soldiers that were stationed there.
According to a report in the Archives of Pediatrics Adolescent Medicine, babies born in Anniston have a higher chance to suffer from structural birth defects like missing limbs, malformed hearts and underdeveloped spinal cords.
In 1999, the EPA declared Fort McClellan to be a toxic site, and was federally mandated to be decontaminated. But that decontamination was only the beginning. In 2003, the city of Anniston sued Monsanto, and the city was awarded $700 million to help care for exposed residents. Veterans stationed at Fort McClellan, however, were never advised of the suit. They were excluded from it, as the Department of Veterans Affairs presumably would be responsible for any medical care or disability for the chemical exposure. In 2009, that 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft called Anniston one of the most toxic places in America, furthering the need for the VA to step up and take care of its veterans. But the problem remains that care isn’t being given. According to the VA, there hasn’t been a “causal” connection between service on the post and diseases resulting from Monsanto chemicals.
A Long Way Off
In May 2011, Congressional representatives reintroduced H.R. 2052, the Fort McClellan Health Registry Act. The bill would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to create and maintain a registry of veterans that were stationed at Fort McClellan, as well as providing them with updates, medical care, and give a presumption of service connection for disability claims for any disease which came as a result of chemical/toxic exposure. Unfortunately, this bill has almost no chance of being passed at this time.
So, just like the long, sordid history of Camp Lejeune, it could take decades to finally have a real answer.
On a personal note, I was also stationed at Fort McClellan in 1998, where I attended Military Police basic training and advanced individual training (AIT). And just like veterans from the other three branches that went to school there, I had no idea I was being exposed to toxins. It’s scary to think that I could develop cancer or suffer from some other malady, just for being stationed there for five months. But it’s even scarier to think that my children could develop health problems because I was required to train there for my career choice.
While Fort McClellan is still under cleanup, it’s not fully closed down. National Guard units, Homeland Security and other law enforcement training groups are still there on temporary assignment. If you, or someone you know, have been stationed there, please spread the word so we can help those in need.