Memphis Barbree - Specialist, NBC & Training NCO, U.S. Army - My Story
In 1988, I left a young, but promising career as a newspaper journalist with Knight-Ridder newspapers to enlist in the Army. Why I did that is another story for another time. I attended Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey in the fall of 1988. From November 1988 to March 1989, I was at Fort McClellan, Alabama for Chemical Operations training to become a Nuclear, Biological, Chemical NCO (non-commissioned officer).
I arrived at Fort McClellan, in good health and performing at high levels on physical fitness tests. As my weeks at Fort McClellan progressed I began feeling unusually tired, having respiratory issues and constant pain in my left leg and hip. I was also gaining weight despite constant and rigorous physical training. I went to sick call and was diagnosed with Walking Pneumonia. My physical fitness performance steadily dropped and, by the end of training, I could barely pass the basic Army physical fitness test.
Once at my duty station, at Camp Carroll, South Korea in mid-March 1989, I continued to have problems with my leg and hip, bouts of exhaustion and began having very troublesome gastro-intestinal issues. I struggled to perform my duties as NBC & Training NCO. After evaluation I was diagnosed as having stress fractures in my left femur and left heel. The doctors could not determine reasons for my other symptoms.
By December my leg had not healed and a variety of the other symptoms and issues continued. I was having more and more trouble performing my work duties and was unable to do any of the regular physical training with my unit. A doctor who examined me in early December became concerned that there was a tumor at the site of the fracture in my femur and said there was not adequate technology available in South Korea to properly treat me. He placed orders for me to be sent to Fitzsimmons VA hospital near Denver, Colorado. By late December, I was back in the U.S.
At Fitzsimmons, I was immediately diagnosed with leukemia. To make a rather long story short, after about a month at the VA hospital, my doctors appeared during rounds one morning to tell me that my "tests had all cleared up" and though they had no explanation for this miracle, they would keep me for awhile to be sure all was well with me and, if I was agreeable to it, they would give me an honorable, medical discharge for my leg issues.
In the Spring of 1990, I was given a clean bill of health by the VA and discharged from the Army. I continued to have similar symptoms, at a similar level to what I had while in the service, for another few years. Over the last 28 years, my symptoms have come and gone, sometimes joined or replaced by a range of other inexplicable and undiagnosable issues. Over the years I have felt convinced that something happened to me while at Fort McClellan and also perhaps at Camp Carroll. There were no other explanations that made any sense. I knew I had been around deadly and debilitating toxic substances in my training - nerve agents, blister agents, and radioactivity. There had also been a thick oily mixture that we put into "smoke" making machines we trained on. We were covered from head to toe in the black, oily mixture for weeks of training in the woods of Fort McClellan. I didn't imagine the perhaps hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families who had also been affected and also living lives with odd symptoms and illnesses, alone and in the dark as to why.
In late February 2018, an acquaintance of mine shared an article from a current issue of The American Legion magazine on social media. Her post said: "Now I Know! Since 1977 I have had one severe illness after another after being stationed at Fort McClellen, Al." She had been at Fort McClellan for Basic Training about ten years before me. Since her time there, she has had three primary cancers, lost a kidney and continues to have a range of respiratory and other ailments.
As I processed my Army past's re-immergence and the experiences of many thousands of veterans and their families, I began contacting friends in the media. As I did so, I had the thought that it was perhaps time for me to dust off my journalism skills and use them with my photography to shed some light on Fort McClellan and the stories of its veterans.
I have begun meeting with Fort McClellan veterans and will be offering out their stories via this journal and other avenues that become available as the veterans of Fort McClellan step out of the shadows and this project develops.