I Was A Firefighter Exposed to Toxic Chemicals at Andersen AFB Guam

The following is a personal story submitted to Civilian Exposure and published as part of our new series: “Contamination Chronicles: Personal Stories of Exposure”. If you would like to submit your story, you may fill out our form here or send directly via email to share-@-civilianexposure.org.


EXPOSURE TO TOXIC CHEMICALS – ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, GUAM

1966 – 1968 During the Vietnam War

I was stationed at Andersen Air Force Base Guam from 01 Aug 1966 – 02 Dec 1968. I was assigned to the United States Air Force Crash Rescue Fire Department initially as a firefighter and then promoted to Crew Chief E-5. In the middle of the 27 months I was assigned as Assistant Non-Commissioned Officer for the Fire Department Training Division.

As a firefighter, I worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off with 72 hours off every two weeks. During the 24 hours on duty, I was required to perform “runway standby” in both stationary fire apparatus and roving runway standby in mobile P6 firefighting pickup trucks. I had served approximately 8 months as a firefighter and later Crew Chief. Every month, our shift would participate in a “pit fire” at the Fire Department Training Area (EPA site 26). I would drive to the training area where 5 to 10, 55-gallon drums of multi colored liquid were waiting for me to dump into the pits. The Fuels Maintenance Section aka POL brought them to the pits.

I removed the “bungs,” tipped the barrels over and rolled them into the pits. The liquids odor was nauseating. We wore no breathing apparatus. Since the liquids would slosh out of the drums as I rolled them, I was splashed with the material. I wore leather gloves and leather combat boots to handle the barrels and on some occasions wore cloth jump suits borrowed from the Fire Department auto mechanics to protect me, my uniform from being soaked with the liquids I spilled into the pit. My gloves and shoes always got soaked. The jump suits were often soaked in the liquids. They were laundered by the military and reused. I stored one pair of combat boots for future use only at the drill pits. The leather gloves were disposable and I did not use them more than once. I would have preferred to dispose of the combat boots but due to the expense, I just reused them. They were not suitable for ordinary duty because they no longer would take a polish.

The liquid would permeate my leather gloves and my boots, my hands and feet became numb when the liquid came in contact with my skin. The numbness would go away after a few hours, sometimes for days.  Now I have permanent peripheral neuropathy in both my hands and both my feet.

In early 1967, I was assigned as Assistant Training NCO for the Fire Department. I now was responsible to set up all the pit fire training sessions for both shifts. Every six months, a new team of firefighters would rotate from US bases to Guam during the war in Viet Nam. I was responsible for training for those temporally assigned (TDY) as well as the civilian (GS) and permanently assigned military (PCS). We “burned” the pits about twice a month, maybe more often depending on the TDY requests.

MARBO ANNEX

For most of the 27-month assignment, I was billeted in the off base Air Force property known as MARBO Annex. The MARBO Annex is located several miles south-southeast of the Main Base and covers 2,342 acres. I drank the water and showered at that facility. I was assigned to the “open bay” area of the facility. The building had no air-conditioning and was only ventilated with aluminum louvers.

At least once a month, the facility was fogged for mosquitoes from spray vehicles which drove the road around the barracks. It could have been sprayed more because I was at work Crash Fire Station and wouldn’t have known if they sprayed. The fog would permeate the barracks through the louvers and enter the sleeping area.

We were not evacuated during the spraying. No one told us it was harmful. I concur with another witness’ statement “My open air barracks was within 1500 feet of two EPA Superfund Clean Up sites. Herbicides were used all around the barracks and parking areas.” When I was at MARBO, I personally was fogged with the chemical.

ANDERSON AIR FORCE BASE GUAM FIRE STATION

We were required to keep our firefighting vehicles in spotless condition. To achieve this we were given the solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) and a type of strong green soap to clean all parts of the crash rescue vehicle. This chemical also has properties proven to cause various debilitating medical conditions to military service members who came in contact with these chemicals.

Recently it has come to light the chemical we mixed with water to fight fuel fires (aka AFFF – Aqueous Film Forming Foam) manufactured by the 3M corporations was also toxic.  During training and actual operations we literally “bathed in the stuff.”  Our bunkers were soaked and our boots filled with the liquid.

U-TAPAO ROYAL THAI AIRBASE – Late 1967

Was sent TDY to U-Tapao Royal Thai Airbase in late 1967 in order to set  up the AS32-P2 Firefighting Vehicle Training Course. I was there for several weeks and lived in temporary structures adjacent to the local klong (runoff water from Tapioca farms).  I conducted several pit fires using JP4.

I swear that everything is factual to the best of my recollection and ability.

Victor R. Vreeland CMSGT USAF USAFR Retired

 


Note from the Editor: The account/editorial above is verbatim from the author without edit.

 

 

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