Out Of The Shadows is an ongoing project to collect the stories and portraits of U.S. veterans who were once stationed at Fort McClellan. Fort McClellan was a U.S. Army Installation near Anniston, Alabama. Anniston has been labeled America’s most toxic town. The installation was opened in 1917, served as a main location of chemical weapons training, testing and storage. The installation was closed in 1999 as part of the Army Base Closure and Realignment Committee (BRAC) program. Thousands of veterans are reporting a range of debilitating to life threatening health issues that they connect to nuclear, biological and chemical hazards they were exposed to while stationed at Fort McClellan.
Members of the U.S. Army Chemical Corp School, Army Combat Development Command Chemical/Biological/Radiological Agency, Army Military Police School and Women’s Army Corps, and other support personnel were stationed at Fort McClellan during its 82-year history. The installation was also the site of the September 1953 Operation Top Hat - a highly secret and very controversial, once revealed, use of Chemical Corps personnel to test decontamination methods for biological and chemical weapons.
At the time of the 1999 BRAC closure of Fort McClellan, an environmental cleanup was required prior to transfer of the federal property to the public domain. Parts of the base have been transferred to the Alabama Army National Guard, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and to the community of Anniston, where the re-development and re-use of the land is being overseen by the McClellan Development Authority.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) currently acknowledges via an official web pagethat soldiers stationed at Fort McClellan may have been exposed to one or more hazardous materials, likely at low levels, during their service at Fort McClellan. Potential exposures could have included, but are not limited to: Radioactive compounds (cesium-137 and cobalt-60) used in decontamination training activities in isolated locations on base; Chemical warfare agents (mustard gas and nerve agents) used in decontamination testing activities in isolated locations on base; Airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Monsanto plant in the neighboring town of Anniston, Alabama. Exposures to high levels of these compounds have been shown to cause a variety of adverse health effects in humans and laboratory animals, but the VA currently holds a position that there is no evidence of exposures of this magnitude having occurred for personnel at Fort McClellan.
The stories of an increasing number of veterans, once stationed at Fort McClellan paint another picture - one of illness during and after their time at the Army installation. Their symptoms often echo those of fellow Fort McClellan veterans and are in lists of known symptoms from exposure to chemical weapons, herbicides and radiation - known to be present on and around the Army installation. An unknown number of veterans and their family members are living with symptoms and illnesses without official recognition, by the Department of Defense or The Department of Veterans Affairs. Thousands of Fort McClellan veterans have begun forming support networks via social media and are beginning work to get a Health Registry Act passed in Congress - a very early step toward getting recognition and help from the VA.
In addition to what went on at the military installation, Anniston, Alabama, a small town adjacent to Fort McClellan, was the first place in the world where PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were commercially manufactured. PCBs were banned in the U.S. in 1979 because of links to cancer in animals and humans. A catch by a local fisherman of severely deformed bass in Choccolocco Creek in 1993, lead to the discovery that Monsanto and Solutia (Monsanto's chemical division spun off in 1997) had knowingly dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into the town’s landfill and creek for over 30 years. The contamination in Anniston was so extreme that Monsanto bought and demolished 100 homes contaminated by PCBs. A class action suit was filed against Monsanto and Solutia by residents of Anniston and the companies were ordered to pay $700 million in damages. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs web page about Fort McClellan toxins lists airborne PCBs from the nearby Monsanto plant as a possible exposure for installation personnel.
From November 1988 to March 1989, I was stationed at Fort McClellan for training in Chemical Operations (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Specialist). My job was to train soldiers to operate in conditions of nuclear, biological and chemical weapon attacks. (My Story)
Every day, more ill Fort McClellan veterans are joining social media pages and groups dedicated to sharing their experiences, symptoms, and connections to hazardous substances found on and around Fort McClellan. This journal of interviews and portraits will be updated as veterans emerge from the shadows to share their stories.