6 years after Iraq, hexavalent chromium exposure weighs on veteran
Written by Julie Sullivan, The Oregonian(ROCKAWAY, Ore. - December 28, 2009) -- The Naylor living room is all playroom, cleared to toddle, cuddle and roll. But when Dad's home, the children often head to the back bedroom to play quietly with Mom.
Six years after Guy Naylor returned from Iraq, he can't stand the clamor of his own family. The soft-spoken dialysis technician shouted at other drivers so often, his family moved to Rockaway to escape Portland traffic. The medic who ran every day has gained 80 pounds. Joint pain wakes him. He coughs so much, his patients constantly ask if he has a cold. He swallows nine different medications a day. Up from none.
"He doesn't seem like a 40-year-old man," says his wife, Toniann. "He seems 60."
Naylor is being treated for post-traumatic stress and exposure to hexavalent chromium, an industrial chemical and well-known carcinogen that soldiers unwittingly faced while guarding war contractors. He's one of 278 Oregon Army National Guard soldiers who were notified of possible exposure while serving at or near the Qarmat Ali water-treatment plant in 2003. Fleeing Iraqi troops loyal to Saddam Hussein had dumped the orange industrial chemical across the property.
Since the Oregon Guard's notified Naylor "out of the blue" last February of his exposure, he has taken all the recommended steps. He's been examined by the Portland Veterans Affairs environmental physician. He's enrolled in the Gulf War Registry.
The list includes the 112,515 veterans whose confounding symptoms are linked to tours in the Gulf in 1990-91 and in Iraq since 2003. Naylor's symptoms are a chief reason why the VA wants to track all Qarmat Ali veterans separately, flagging their records and studying them over time.
But naming Naylor's issues doesn't make living with them any easier. The weight of Naylor's war, like many combat veterans, is being shouldered almost entirely by his family.
"Everyone is supposed to be happy now because the spouse is home and everyone is together, putting the pieces back together again," says his wife, Toniann Naylor, 31.
"But the pieces no longer fit."
When Guy Naylor's Forest Grove unit was called up seven years ago, Capt. Jon Van Horn chose Naylor for a senior medic position. Naylor was a Portland native who had served in the Oregon Guard since 1987, combating fires and floods. He'd been an active duty soldier, in Korea and for two years at Walter Reed Medical Center. He worked as a kidney dialysis technician at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. He was a married father of four. He was, Van Horn says, experienced, dependable, motivated and upbeat.
Their unit was among the first Oregon troops into Iraq, and they paid for the honor. Hygiene and air quality was so bad at their first Kuwaiti camp, soldiers suffered bloody diarrhea and could not safely exercise for all the burning industrial pollutants. Naylor, who'd also been trained as a machine gunner, was among the small number of Oregon soldiers sent to guard Kellogg Brown & Root employees working on Operation Restore Iraqi Oil. Small teams traveled to the Iraqi border, jumping into KBR vehicles headed to the oil fields.
One stop was the Qarmat Ali water-treatment plant, where the soldiers stayed outside while KBR contractors worked indoors. Months later, the Indiana Guard replacing Oregon troops learned the orange dust coating their clothing and boots at the plant was a corrosion fighter that contained the carcinogen, hexavalent chromium.
Last year, KBR employees and Indiana soldiers accused managers at the Halliburton subsidiary of deliberately withholding that information in order to restore the oil flow and earn millions in completion bonuses.
At the plant, Naylor both suffered and treated fellow soldiers for the coughs, sinus problems and headaches that he blamed on sand and dehydration.
After Naylor's unit left Qarmat Ali in June 2003, their problems persisted at a base outside Baghdad where they confronted other problems. "We saw terrible things. None of us were prepared for the local stuff," says Van Horn, a physician assistant at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center who specializes in trauma.
The medics would treat Iraqi families who came to the gate for care, sometimes with children who'd been dipped into boiling water for punishment. The scald victims were usually girls as young as 9 months. The child abuse haunted the soldiers, especially Naylor and other fathers, says Van Horn. "We were treating the kids at the gate for burns that would have landed them in a burn center here."
Naylor was also miserable in the 150-degree heat with stinging rashes on his back and chest. The first time he jumped from a troop truck, the weight of his body armor drove him to his knees. But he was also a superb medic, according to his supervisor, Staff Sgt. Rob Stevens, who said Naylor saved a soldier who'd been hurt in a Humvee rollover.
But Naylor never got comfortable in combat. "I was afraid all the time," he admits, and he worried constantly about his family back in Oregon.
He had met his wife at work at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, where Toniann, a single mom, was attracted by his calm and steady devotion. But at his homecoming in 2004, Naylor snapped at their kids.
"It was an instant change," she says. "I kept waiting for him to come back to his old normal self. It me took three years to realize that wasn't going to happen."
Sixteen soldiers from Naylor's unit have sued KBR for knowingly exposing them to hexavalent chromium. They join Guard soldiers from Indiana, West Virginia and South Carolina who say they suffer breathing and stomach problems, and are at a higher risk of cancer. At least three soldiers who served at Quarmat Ali have died of cancer, including Nicholas Thomas of Happy Valley. KBR has denied harming troops. KBR argues that no injury is linked to chemical exposure at the water treatment plant.
Complaints from KBR employees and Indiana Guard arose during Senate hearings on Iraq contract abuses in 2008. That led to the Oregon connection, virtually unknown until it was reported in The Oregonian last January. Shortly after, the Oregon Guard sent letters to soldiers who served at or near Quarmat Ali.
At least five others Oregon soldiers are expected to join the suit this week, bringing the total to 21, says Portland attorney David Sugerman. Attorneys are wrangling over whether KBR is subject to the jurisdiction of Oregon courts.
Meanwhile, Naylor has not had the time or the energy to join the suit, much less learn much about it. He puts 500 miles a week on his pickup commuting to St. Vincent's for his $35,000-a-year job. He works three 12-hour days, sleeping at his parents' home in Forest Grove, then returns home for long weekends. Older children Brett, 18, and Sierra, 15, live mostly with Naylor's first wife. Toniann stays home with Amyann, 13; Kayla, 7; Dominic, 5; and Joey, 14 months.
The family has felt the brunt of the war. When Naylor first came back from Iraq, he drank. He erupted in explosive rage. He was exhausted. As his mood steadily darkened, he threatened to drive off a cliff. He tried sawing through his arm with a knife and was hospitalized in the VA's psych unit, diagnosed with bipolar disorder that doctors told him emerged after his traumatic experiences in Iraq.
He's being treated by a VA psychologist and therapist, has stopped binge drinking, and medication has stabilized his mood. But like all rural veterans, access to PTSD experts with combat experience is limited.
Physically, his symptoms seem to mirror problems associated with hexavalent chromium: He takes medicine for high blood pressure and a racing heart and severe acid reflux. He still has short-term memory problems and severe sleep apnea.
And Dominic, now 5, conceived within a week of his homecoming has been diagnosed with autism. Naylor fears a connection to his Iraq service.
"I have a lot of guilt," Naylor says, "thinking maybe I brought something home."
Toniann refuses to blame her husband. She concentrates on surviving. The couple drained a pension fund and sold his CPR training equipment on eBay to help Santa Claus. They marvel they are still together and agree it's for the kids. They even supported his oldest son, Brett, whose dream has been to join Naylor's former Oregon Guard unit.
Van Horn, Naylor's medical commander in Iraq, says he was shocked when he first saw Naylor back at headquarters in Forest Grove after their return.
"Something got sucked out of him," Van Horn says. Naylor retired from the Guard in March, after 22 years.
Van Horn says for all the talk of the Greatest Generation, Naylor's generation faces the same issues as soldiers in World War II, Korea and Vietnam did. War is hell. And then you take it home.
"But I'm proud of Guy. Whatever his issues are, he's remained functional. He's returned to society, he's gone on with his life. He's carrying his load. And he has not quit.
"He has not quit."