Sunday, July 12, 2009
By Kaitlynn Riely, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. — Russell Powell wondered for years after he returned from Iraq why he couldn’t run even short distances without wheezing. Following his yearlong tour of duty that ended in 2004, he coached his son’s Little League team, but had to stop because it exhausted him. The 34-year-old, who was able to run two miles in 9:44 before he went to Iraq in 2003, said now he is lucky to finish in 20 minutes. He was discharged from the West Virginia Army National Guard for medical reasons at the end of 2008 because he was unable to meet physical requirements. Since he started his new job as a corrections officer for a West Virginia prison earlier this year, he’s had to use several sick days and vacation days to visit doctors. In February, Mr. Powell, who was a sergeant in the 1092d Engineer Battalion, received a letter from the state surgeon of the West Virginia Army National Guard. He thinks it explains why he’s been out of breath and nauseous, suffering from rashes and sick to his stomach for the last five years. And he thinks it explains why, for three months in Iraq, he constantly coughed up blood, had frequent bloody noses and, at one point, passed out, waking up in a hospital with blackened lips and a blistered face. The letter said Mr. Powell and other soldiers in his unit may have been exposed to sodium dichromate, an industrial chemical used to prevent the corrosion of pipes at a water treatment facility near Basrah, Iraq. The chemical contains hexavalent chromium, which can cause sores inside the nose and on the skin, general skin irritation, nose bleeding, wheezing, coughing and pain in the chest when breathing, fever, nausea and upset stomach. It also has been linked to cancer.