August 18, 2008 in Nation/World

Soldiers say barracks mold-infested

Some claim conditions at facility for wounded went unheeded
By GREGG ZOROYA USA Today
 

LAWTON, Okla. – Mold infests the barracks that were set up here a year ago for wounded soldiers after poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center triggered a systemwide overhaul, soldiers say.

Twenty soldiers, who spoke to USA Today early last week, said their complaints about mold and other problems went unheeded for months. They also said they had been ordered not speak about the conditions at Fort Sill.

Officers at the Army base last week ordered that ventilation ducts in two barracks be replaced and soldiers be surveyed, anonymously if they wished, about any concerns. Maj. Gen. Peter Vangjel, the commanding officer, said it was “inappropriate” for soldiers to be ordered not to talk about the mold. “We’re going in, and we’re going to take care of this for these guys,” he said over the weekend.

Images of mold growing on walls of wounded soldier bedrooms at Walter Reed last year, along with issues of bureaucratic delays in health care, led to an overhaul of the Army’s wounded-care system. Warrior Transition Units were created to expedite the care and treatment of wounded and ailing soldiers.

Army commanders testified before Congress on July 22 that the population of wounded and ailing soldiers in the units had doubled from 6,000 to 12,000 since the program’s inception in June 2007, straining resources at several installations.

Col. Robert Bridgford, garrison commander at Fort Sill, said he ordered workers last week to replace ventilation ducts encrusted with mold in two 48-room barracks at the base.

About 70 of the 142 patients who are part of the unit for wounded and ailing troops at Fort Sill live in the barracks, said Col. Ellen Forster, who oversees the WTU program. The soldiers have been temporarily relocated during the repair work.

Early last week, soldiers said that in April they first noticed what looked like layers of mold in flexible air ducts above their rooms when ventilation covers were removed to be cleaned. “(The duct work) was just caked black,” said Sgt. Willard Barnett, 51, an Iraq war veteran.

Some soldiers say they have been affected by air in their rooms.

Vangjel and Forster said they were unaware of complaints in April.

Bridgford said that Aug. 8 lab tests, taken in response to a July 25 inspector general’s review, show the barracks have “common mold” that is not hazardous. He said some vents were cleaned earlier this year.

Forster, a nurse who commands the Fort Sill hospital, told WTU soldiers Friday that the barracks are safe.


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