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Guard Commander Said KBR Carcinogen Caused his Cancer

A funeral is set 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. His death is a marker in a pending federal lawsuit; his life inspired a federal bill working its way through Congress.

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. 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.

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.

The original complaint claims KBR had early indications of a chemical risk before the soldiers arrived.

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.

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