WASHINGTON (CBS News) ―
The military contractor Kellogg Brown and Root, known as KBR, has won more than $28 billion in U.S. military contracts since the beginning of the Iraq war. KBR may be facing a new scandal. First, accusations its then-parent company Halliburton was given the lucrative contract. And later, allegations of shoddy construction oversight that resulted in Americans getting electrocuted. Now, some other American soldiers say the company knowingly put their lives at risk, CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian exclusively reports.
In April of 2003, James Gentry of the Indiana National Guard arrived in Southern Iraq to take command of more than 600 other guardsmen. Their job: protect KBR contractors working at a local water plant.
“We didn’t question what we were doing, we just knew we had to provide a security service for the KBR,” said Battalion Cmdr. Gentry.
Today James Gentry is dying from rare form of lung cancer. The result, he believes, of months of inhaling hexavalent chromium – an orange dust that’s part of a toxic chemical found all over the plant.
At least one other Indiana guardsman has already died from lung cancer, and others are said to be suffering from tumors and rashes consistent with exposure to the deadly toxin.
“I’m a nonsmoker. I believe that I received this cancer from the southern oil fields in Iraq,” he said.
Now CBS News has obtained information that indicates KBR knew about the danger months before the soldiers were ever informed.
Depositions from KBR employees detailed concerns about the toxin in one part of the plant as early as May of 2003. And KBR minutes, from a later meeting state “that 60 percent of the people … exhibit symptoms of exposure,” including bloody noses and rashes.
“We didn’t question what we were doing,” a grief-stricken Gentry told CBS. “We just knew we had to provide a security service for the KBR. … We would never have been there if we would have known.”
It wasn’t until the end of August that the Indiana National Guardsmen were informed that the plant was contaminated, and some say they have only just learned about it this year. Gentry says it wasn’t until the last day of August in 2003 – after four long months at the facility – that he was told the plant was contaminated.
A new internal Army investigation obtained exclusively by CBS News says the Army’s medical response was “prompt and effective.” But even after a briefing Monday, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh says that KBR has a lot to answer for.
“Look, I think the burden of proof at this point is on the company,” Bayh said. “To come forward and very forthrightly explain what happened, why we should trust them, and why the health and well-being of our soldiers should continue to be in their hands.”
In a statement, the company told CBS News: “We deny the assertion that KBR harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe condition.”
The company says it notified the Army as soon as it identified the toxin.
Still, some Indiana guardsmen say they only just learned of the risk.
“I didn’t know I was exposed to a deadly carcinogen until five years later when I received a letter,” said Indiana National Guardsman Jody Aistrop.
This is far from the first time the multi-billion dollar contractor has been accused of questionable conduct at Iraq. In addition to convictions for bribery, it’s alleged KBR provided contaminated water to troops. The company denies all charges.
“It’s going to cost American lives, I’m afraid,” Gentry said. “I love them. I love my men so much.”
So much so Gentry says he will urge each and every one of them get tested for the cancer that he fears is taking his life. A CBS News investigation has obtained evidence that a subsidiary of Halliburton, the giant energy company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, knowingly exposed United States soldiers to toxic materials in Iraq.
KBR, which was spun off by Halliburton in 2007 as a separate corporation, has previously been accused of providing contaminated water to troops in Iraq, taking kickbacks, and sending workers to Iraq against their will.
David Edwards and Muriel Kane contributed to this article.