It was the 1970s, and a teenage Laynie Roland, who spent most days surfing and boogie boarding along Newport Beach, Calif., embodied the Southern California girl.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Roland attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. A psychology major, she was only one year into her studies when she knew “there was something bigger calling me,” she recalled.
As the daughter of a Navy gunner, she was naturally curious about a career in the military. Almost immediately, the service seemed to hold all the answers. “I knew that was where I wanted to be,” she said.
She would have to cut her long hair to join the Navy or the Marines, so the 19-year-old Roland enlisted in the U.S. Army, the only branch of service that would allow her to keep it. In January 1982, she landed in Alabama, and at Fort McClellan, with temperatures dipping below 20 degrees, she caught an upper respiratory infection. She hadn’t fully recovered when she began training. One month in, she slipped while marching up a road with a 45-degree incline, resulting in a lasting knee injury. But she continued to train, earning the nickname “Roll-with-it-Roland.”
A portion of her training included bivouac, which was “like camping, only you wear war paint and carry a gun,” said Roland. They set up tents and lived outdoors, relying on streams running through the encampment for bathing, cooking and drinking water. She isn’t sure if it was because of a weakened immune system due to the respiratory infection or training on a hurt knee, but Roland’s health suffered.
And there was something Roland didn’t know: The land and water around Fort McClellan was laced with a host of human-made pollutants such as PCBs and Agent Orange. Chances are the chemicals, which studies have shown can cause lasting and sometimes devastating effects on the human body, contributed to her poor health.
Eaten ‘from the inside out’
Two weeks before Roland was set to graduate as a military police officer, she said she was discharged as “honorable with erroneous enlistment,” because the Army had misclassified her upon recruitment. It was a small error, according to Roland, and she technically still qualified for military police training. “I’ve never been able to fully understand why they pulled me,” she said.
The discharge left Roland hurt and confused. Back home with her parents, she attempted to return to the waves. But she couldn’t surf. Even walking on the sand was painful.
She went to a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. She said doctors told her that her days of physical activity were over and she would never be able to surf again. She filed a disability claim with the VA, but it was denied.
Roland’s health faded. She lost 30 pounds during her first month back. Her parents attributed it to depression — and she was depressed. In 1987, she married and moved north to Portland with her husband and daughter from a previous relationship. In 1989, Roland gave birth to a second girl, but soon after divorced.
As a single mother, she supported her daughters by working various administrative jobs, yet all the while, her health disintegrated: She had a partial hysterectomy at 28 and another at 32, suffered from tinnitus, vision loss, insomnia, depression, stomach problems and other ailments that she said were unexplainable.
“On Cinco de Mayo, 2009, I found myself in the hospital for an emergency gall bladder removal. The doctor said it was like pulling out a black pile of mush, and after that, the sicknesses just kept getting worse,” she said.
In 2010, she became homeless because she was unable to afford a place even though she was employed. Stories she’d heard from other women made her fearful of staying in homeless shelters alone, so Roland slept where she could. She bounced between couches, old trailers and garages and often slept in her 2006 Toyota Tundra. “The one place I never went was under the bridge,” she said.
Most mornings Roland would use gas station bathrooms to wash up, apply her makeup and get ready for her day at the office. Gas stations also served as a good place to park. She would get acquainted with people on the graveyard shift so they would watch her truck while she slept with her tabby cat, Missy, and her .38 revolver, which she kept loaded with hollow points. Throughout her bout of homelessness, her health made it nearly impossible to change her situation.
“I would have problems with my stomach and just attribute it to stress. It was really hard to keep a job because I was sick so much. I just couldn’t understand why my body was shutting down,” she said.
Regardless, Roland took care of her sick brother and ran errands for her aging mother (her parents had moved to Portland). She watched her daughters and two grandchildren and joined Soldiers’ Angels and No Soldier Left Behind, greeting veterans returning from deployment. She worked as an executive assistant, in payroll and as an office administrator. She even started her own online business making “cube roofs” that filter the fluorescent lighting that hangs above cubicles.
Roland was living in the cab of her truck, parked at a 76 gas station in Southeast Portland, when she sought help from Rick Rutherford, a Veterans Service Officer in Clackamas County. Rutherford encouraged her to appeal her denied disability claim with the VA — after all, it was an injury she got in training, and it still bothered her. As the two went through her extensive health history, Rutherford also suggested she file compensation claims with the VA.
Roland recalled what he told her next: “We’re going to file a claim for all of it, because — I hate to tell you this — but at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, you were … chemically poisoned. You are literally being eaten from the inside out.”
Training near the ‘most toxic city in America’
Built in 1917, Fort McClellan sits adjacent to the small town of Anniston, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. Directly to its east, the Talladega National Forest, known for picturesque scenic byways and cascading waterfalls, served as additional land for military training maneuvers.
During World War II, the fort was expanded to become one of the nation’s largest training bases at 40,000 acres. During the Vietnam War, it was used primarily for chemical weapons training. Throughout most of the 20th century, it was home to the U.S. Army’s Military Police Corps, Chemical Corps and Women’s Army Corps.
The fort closed in 1999, nine years after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the area a Superfund site, an EPA designation for the country’s most “uncontrolled hazardous waste sites” in need of cleanup. Chemicals deployed during training exercises, such as depleted uranium, Agent Orange, Agent Blue, nerve gas and mustard gas, have contaminated the soil, groundwater and streams — the same waterways that soldiers like Roland bathed in and drank from while stationed at the fort.
But soldiers at Fort McClellan were exposed to more than the poisons found in chemical weapons and pesticides.
In a 2002 segment on “60 Minutes” called “Toxic Secret,” the news program called neighboring Anniston the most toxic city in America. PCBs were not only invented in Anniston, but the multinational biotech company Monsanto had produced them there for decades.
According to CBS News, Monsanto had dumped tons of raw PCBs directly into a creek that ran by its facility and buried another 5,000 tons nearby. Fumes from the buried poison continued to seep into the air for years. In 2003, Monsanto settled with the citizens of Anniston for $700 million, but veterans from Fort McClellan were excluded.
In addition to the area’s PCB contamination from Monsanto and the chemical leakage on the base, nearby Pelham Range, where many Fort McClellan veterans trained, was radioactive.
According to the Army’s 1999 assessment of the range, the level of radioactive cesium and cobalt found indicated radiological health hazards. The level of cesium, a byproduct of nuclear fission, was seven million times the acceptable limit.
For decades, veterans who trained at Fort McClellan had slopped around in a chemical soup during their training. They drank it, bathed in it, washed their clothes in it, cooked with it and inhaled it. Accompanying the long list of poisons and pollutants is another equally long list, supported by studies, of linked physical ailments and disorders. Because exposure to some of the poisons found on the base can change a person’s DNA, the effects can be passed on for generations, resulting in birth defects, autism and other maladies.
While the VA acknowledges Fort McClellan is a poisonous wasteland, it does not extend medical coverage to likely exposure-related illnesses brought on from training on the base. Nor has it reached out to let the veterans who trained there know it was a toxic environment. Because of this, many military personnel and civilians who worked and lived on the base are still unaware of the potential health risks associated with time spent at Fort McClellan.
Roland found similarities between her health problems and those of other Fort McClellan veterans when she joined a Facebook page of vets who called themselves “toxic soldiers.” Many told of multiple miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies and other health disorders similar to Roland’s.
Lisa Jo Sarro was stationed at Fort McClellan in 1984, and her medical history is strikingly similar to Roland’s: A hysterectomy in her 20s, depression, gall bladder removal, insomnia, and vision and memory loss. Sarro said she also suffers from liver problems, chronic fatigue, heart arrhythmias, rheumatoid arthritis and skin conditions. Her younger brother, also a Fort McClellan soldier, suffered from similar illnesses.
In 1989, Ted Methvin Jr., then 18, arrived at Fort McClellan. Like so many others, he too drank from the polluted streams.
“We used it for our coffee every morning,” he said.
It wasn’t until he stumbled upon the Facebook group in February 2014, while searching online for Army buddies, that he became aware of his own exposure to chemicals.
Now a filmmaker and screenwriter, Methvin Jr. and his business partner, Jason Loring, are determined to make a documentary. Called “Toxic Service: The Soldier’s Story,” they hope the film will have a release date this year.
Methvin Jr. and Loring went to Washington D.C. last year to meet with five members of Congress who had agreed to be interviewed for their film. In every case, the filmmakers said, they were instead met by staff members. They were told that no part of their conversations with staff members could be filmed, recorded or quoted. Methvin Jr.’s multiple attempts to get statements from the VA and Monsanto also failed, they said.
“For some reason, nobody wants to talk about this,” said Loring.
Methvin Jr. said he’s heard from more than 3,000 veterans who believe they are experiencing health problems resulting from chemical exposure at Fort McClellan. “That’s a small number compared to the number of vets who went through there. As of right now, the rough estimate is 650,000,” he said.
Loring said, “Some of these vets and the stories they have to tell about their health problems and the things they’ve experienced due to exposure from their training at Fort McClellan are just so utterly heartbreaking.”
Some veterans’ groups are pushing for legislation, introduced two years ago, that would create a Fort McClellan health registry to test and chronicle soldiers’ impact from exposure. Another bill that’s been introduced in the House of Representatives would extend benefits to the children of poisoned veterans and create a center at the VA to specialize in diagnosing and treating toxic exposure. Lacking any political priority, both bills continue to languish in committee.
“That’s part of the problem with these veterans trying to get the medical care that they need at the VA” says Loring. “There’s no attention on it, and no one cares if there is no attention on it.”
On Jan. 17, Fort McClellan veterans plan to march from the VA office in D.C. to the White House to raise awareness of the issue.
In the meantime, Roland files claims with the VA that may never be approved. Her appeal has passed the 420-day mark, which she’s been told is the average length of time it takes to hear back. Now living in an apartment in Milwaukie, her credit cards are maxed out and her savings are gone. She’s already put some of her belongings in storage in case she ends up living out of her vehicle when her lease ends and her rent goes up this month.
She said she wonders what her life would have been like if she hadn’t been so stubborn about cutting her hair 32 years ago and joined the Navy.
“I signed the dotted line. I was willing to die for my country,” said Roland. “I just never thought I’d be dying like this.”