Tuesday 12 May 2009
US troops pause after hearing gunshots while patroling along the Tigris River south of Baghdad. (Photo: Getty Images)
Rations and problems trigger desperate measures to survive intense heat.
Houston – Take Houston’s heat on a miserable summer day and add 40 degrees, making temperatures 130 or more.
Next, add an extra 100 pounds of life-protecting gear to your body: bulletproof vests, guns and ammunition.
And then imagine not having enough water around to drink.
Stories of short supplies have haunted the U.S. military throughout the war in Iraq – things like inadequate body armor or unshielded Hummers. But while many soldiers say they had good access to water and even Gatorade, the 11 News Defenders discovered that others, stationed all over the country and during all phases of this desert war, say something else was often missing.
“We were rationed two bottles of water a day,” said Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Robey, referring to 1 to 1.5 liter bottles.
And he said that wasn’t nearly enough.
“You’ll see guys throw up, you’ll see them pass out,” he said.
Robey said it started early on in the war, and that he and other soldiers are paying the price to this day. In 2003, he said soldiers were given what was the equivalent of only a half gallon of water to survive on a day – all while dodging bullets in the blistering heat.
“We were on missions, I ran out of water,” Robey said.
That’s no surprise. According to an Army Fort Bragg training document on preventing heat casualties in desert climates, water losses can reach 15 liters, or four gallons, per day per soldier. Additionally, Survival, a 1957 Department of the Army field manual, states “in hot deserts, you need a minimum of one gallon (of water) per day” just to survive.
So Robey said his company were forced to improvise.
“We were inside a house, I’d stick my head under the faucet and drink,” he said.
But Iraqi water is often untreated and can cause intestinal sickness.
“We had a real rash of dysentery go through my company. I’d say 50 to 60 guys got it,” Robey said.
But what about getting water from what the military calls “water buffaloes,” storage trucks that are supposed to bring purified water to the troops in the field?
A number of soldiers told 11 News that it was often difficult to locate these trucks, partly because they say there was a shortage of them. In addition, many soldiers claim that a lot of the water dispensed by these vehicles was so heavily treated with chemicals that “no one could keep it down.”
Robey said eventually they became desperate.
“It really hit me the day I was with my commander and we’re stealing water,” Robey said, describing how they raided supplies at the Baghdad International Airport.
To get there, they had to take one of the riskiest routes in Iraq at that time, riddled with road bombs and roadside insurgents.
But they reached the airport and found plenty of water. It was in the hands of civilian contractors, who Robey claims were supposed to be distributing it to soldiers.
“You just had pallets upon pallets upon pallets of (bottled) water,” Robey said.
Water shortages continued in other parts of Iraq at other locations too, according to other soldiers. Private Bryan Hannah recalled a troubling situation in 2007:
Private Hannah: “My sergeant told my lieutenant we didn’t have enough water and he said go find some.”
11 News: “What does ‘go find some’ mean?”
Private Hannah: “It means ‘if you don’t want to die, then go find some water.'”
Hannah and fellow soldiers did just that, finding it once again at a civilian contractor facility.
“We’d just run out and start grabbing cases of water and start throwing them in the gunner’s hatch,” said Hannah.
“This sounds like something that definitely needs to be looked into,” said Dr. Stephen Fadem, a kidney specialist with Kidney Associates PLLC, who also teaches at the Veterans Administration.
“If soldiers are saying that they are not getting adequate water, that needs to be taken seriously,” Dr. Fadem said.
In the short term, Fadem said, you could collapse, and in the long term, “they may end up with kidney injury.”
The same training document from Fort Bragg details those very health concerns. It states chronic dehydration is associated with kidney stones, urinary infection, rectal afflictions and skin problems.
“This can be very challenging,” said Dr. Fadem.
But 11 News identified another problem with water in Iraq – dirty water in sinks and showers soldiers used.
“I mean it’s yellow, and it’s filthy,” said Sgt. Casey J. Porter.
Porter, an aspiring filmmaker, took video footage of rust-colored water from faucets at Camp Taji in 2008. By that time in the war, Taji appeared less like a war zone and more like a mall.
“You can eat Subway, Burger King, you can buy a $1,200 Oakley watch, but you can’t have clean water to brush your teeth with; what’s the real priority here?” Sgt. Porter said.
Turns out, at many similar bases, the water was supposed to be processed by Houston-based company KBR. In an internal KBR report, the company sites “massive programmatic issues” with water for personal hygiene dating back to 2005. It outlines how there was no formalized training for anyone involved with water operations, and one camp, Ar Ramadi, had no disinfection for shower water whatsoever.
“That water was two to three times as contaminated as the water out of the Euphrates River,” said former KBR employee Ben Carter.
Carter, a water purification specialist, was the one to blow the whistle on it all. He said he first noticed a problem when he found a live maggot in a base toilet at Camp Ar Ramadi. He subsequently discovered that instead of using chlorinated water, the soldiers’ sinks and showers were pouring out untreated wastewater.
“You’re standing in what’s essentially a sauna of microorganisms. Your eyes, ears, anyplace there’s a cut, a person would be at risk of containing a pathogen,” Carter said.
But when he wanted to inform U.S. forces, Carter said KBR supervisors gave him a verbal lashing.
“The military is none of your f-ing concern, uh, which was shocking to me,” Carter said.
11 News asked military officials about the water problems in Iraq. In a statement by the Multi-National Force in Iraq press office states: “We have a proven system that works. Commanders at all levels do their utmost to provide the necessary resources required to sustain the force.”
KBR in a statement, told 11 News a Department of Defense Inspector General report concluded “KBR has (since) satisfied applicable water standards,” adding that “the DoD has not found any illness which it attributes to water in Iraq.”
But tell that to Staff Sgt. Dustin Robey.
“I take 26 different types of pills a day,” Robey said. “I’ve had kidney stones, almost on a daily basis.”
He said he’s passed hundreds of them since returning from Iraq.
“It feels like someone’s stabbing you in the side just over and over and over again,” Robey said.
He blames the lack of, and quality of water for his poor health, and the hardest part of it all is the toll it’s taken on his family.
“There’s days when I can’t go out and play with my children outside, I’m in that much pain,” Robey said.
As for his military career? It’s over. The Army forced him to retire because of his condition and slashed his pay to the point where is family is staring at foreclosure and has moved in with relatives.
The former staff sergeant’s only hope? That the next time our country does it the right way. And Afghanistan, is just around the corner.
“If we can’t provide enough water, enough materials for guys to get through the day, to where they don’t have long-term effects for guys like myself, then why even fight the war,” Robey said.
Now again, many other soldiers told us a different story: That they had no problem getting enough drinkable water. However, we found that the differing experiences seemed to have a great deal to do with when the soldier was deployed there, what part of the country he was in, and what his assignment was.
Either way, kidney stones have become such a widespread problem among the troops that the military has set up a medical treatment center in Iraq to treat them.