reprinted from indystar.com
December 1, 2009
Guard commander said exposure to carcinogen in Iraq caused his cancer
By Jason Thomas
A funeral is set today for a retired Indiana National Guard commander who testified in October that exposure to a lethal carcinogen in Iraq caused his cancer.
Lt. Col. James C. Gentry, 52, Williams, Ind., died of lung cancer Wednesday. His death is a poignant marker in a pending federal lawsuit; his life inspired a federal bill working its way through Congress.
Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, Indiana's top National Guard general, will attend the service at noon at Kraft Funeral Service in New Albany in Southern Indiana.
"He was a very good person who cared for his soldiers and his family," Lt. Col. Deedra Thombleson, the Indiana National Guard's public affairs officer, said of Gentry, who retired in February 2008 after 22 years of service. "He came forth and talked about the issues, hoping it would draw attention to what he and his soldiers had gone through."
Gentry, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, last spring joined a federal lawsuit filed in December 2008. It accuses Texas-based KBR and several related companies of concealing the risks faced by 136 Indiana National Guard soldiers potentially exposed to a cancer-causing agent, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The suit originally was filed on behalf of 16 Indiana soldiers but has grown to 47 plaintiffs, including the family of a soldier, David Moore, Dubois, Ind., who died of a lung disease in 2008.
Most of the plaintiffs served with a Tell City unit sent to Iraq with the Indiana National Guard's 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment, based in Jasper. For three months beginning in May 2003, the unit provided security for KBR employees charged with rebuilding the Qarmat Ali water-pumping plant near Basra.
The lawsuit says sodium dichromate, an industrial chemical normally used to remove pipe corrosion, contained heavy doses of the toxin and had been spread around the site, possibly by fleeing loyalists of ousted President Saddam Hussein.
The carcinogen, hexavalent chromium, is known to heighten the risk for cancer of the lungs and respiratory tract and is one of the most dangerous carcinogens rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Mike Doyle, the Houston-based lead attorney on the lawsuit.
Gentry, who commanded more than 600 soldiers, did not smoke.
The Indiana lawsuit is one of five across the country involving several hundred soldiers potentially exposed to the carcinogen, according to Doyle. Lawsuits have been filed in Oregon, West Virginia and Pittsburgh. In all, more than 600 troops from Indiana and three other states could have been exposed, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Indiana suit claims many soldiers who served at the plant are developing rashes and other health problems.
"I don't know what kind of impact it will have on the lawsuit, but it's a terrible loss for his family and Indiana and the soldiers who served with him," Doyle said of Gentry's death.
The original complaint claims KBR had early indications of a chemical risk before the soldiers arrived.
"KBR's commitment to the safety and security of all employees, the troops and those we serve is the company's top priority," Heather L. Browne, the company's communications director, said in a statement. "KBR did not knowingly harm troops."
The last of Gentry's two depositions in the case came in October at his Southern Indiana home, where he had hoped to live out his retirement with his wife, LouAnn.
"His wife," Thombleson added, "does not want his death to be in vain."
A few weeks after the deposition, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., spoke with Gentry on the phone. His story and that of his fellow soldiers stirred Bayh to write the Health Care for Veterans Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act of 2009, which is now with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The legislation would make affected soldiers eligible for medical examinations, laboratory tests, hospital care and nursing services. It also would recognize a veteran's own report of exposure and include it in a Department of Defense registry.
Passage of the legislation would be a fitting tribute to a soldier who gave all, those who knew Gentry say.
"He was just a great people person and cared about his soldiers," Thombleson said. "His loyalty to his soldiers, even when he passed away, was still there."
The Indiana lawsuit is set for trial Sept. 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in Evansville.