After JC was poisoned, Cale Brown pleaded with base leaders to enforce regular home inspections, test more kids and scrutinize contractors. “A few small changes could mean the difference between a child having life-altering developmental problems or being completely healthy,” he wrote Benning’s garrison command in December 2012
“Bottom line, we will do everything necessary to make sure this is addressed thoroughly and quickly,” Colonel Jeffrey Fletcher, the garrison commander at the time, responded in an email. Fletcher declined to comment.
The next year, 2013, Benning’s hospital recorded seven more high lead-test results for children. One child had lead levels more than double JC’s, hospital records show.
Villages of Benning began replacing some old leaded windows and garage doors around the base that year, but left others in place, state and Army records show.
STALKED BY LEAD, GOING TO COURT
Even after the Browns moved to another Benning home, JC wasn’t safe.
In 2013, he began special education preschool classes at Benning’s Dexter Elementary School. Months later, Darlena received a frightening note on Defense Department letterhead: Drinking water taps in JC’s classroom had tested high for lead.
One had 2,200 parts per billion lead – 147 times an EPA safety threshold and higher than all but a few of the worst taps found during the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan. It isn’t clear how many students may have been exposed.
Benning didn’t require or recommend they get screened
The Army said the contamination was limited to individual taps around the base and didn’t affect the underlying water system. The tainted taps were shut, and parents who wanted testing for their children were given the option, the Army said.
In 2014, the Browns filed suit in Georgia federal court against Benning’s housing contractors, alleging their negligence caused JC’s poisoning and seeking compensation for his disability. The contractors denied any wrongdoing and contested the suit.
Cale deployed to Afghanistan the same year. There, he pushed for housing repairs at U.S. bases in a meeting that November with Katherine Hammack, the Army’s top official in charge of military installations.
She seemed to favour bold action, Cale said: preventing small children from living in older base homes altogether.
Cale said his follow-ups went unanswered
Hammack, who left the Army last year, told Reuters she explored such a plan, but Army lawyers said it could be discriminatory against families with children. “It is up to the soldier to make a choice,” she said.
Families who rent pre-1978 housing on bases are given lead disclosure forms before signing a lease, as required of all U.S. landlords by federal law, and can opt to live elsewhere, the Army said.
Two days before Christmas 2014, Darlena learned that JC’s lead levels, which had declined over time, were rising again. Her younger son’s levels were up, too, though below the CDC’s elevated threshold. The agency says there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood.
She removed the boys from their second Benning home that night. Nine time zones away, Cale boarded a chopper out of Forward Operating Base Gamberi in eastern Afghanistan. He was granted emergency home leave to help his family resettle.
The next year, in 2015, the Defense Department’s Inspector General found that a Clark and Michaels partnership had failed to correct lead paint hazards in homes at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. The Army pledged to address the issue with contractors, IG records show.
At Benning, meanwhile, children had 14 more high lead tests.
DANGER ON RAINBOW AVENUE
Fort Benning’s Rainbow Avenue seems a perfect spot for families, the yards of its 1920s homes filled with toys, American flags fluttering from front porches.
Behind this idyll, children face poisoning risks.
Since 2015, state lead inspectors have visited at least three of the 33 houses on the street in response to calls from worried residents, state environmental records show. “The homes all have high levels of lead,” inspectors wrote in an internal memo last year.
In one Rainbow home, they found leaded dust at 93 times the EPA’s hazard level.
In another, inspector William Spain of the state Environmental Protection Department visited a mother of three in 2016. He found paint chips throughout the home and later emailed colleagues: “Her youngest will be 5 in July and did not appear normal.”
The mother had grown concerned after the mysterious deaths of family pets. But she hesitated when the state offered additional help, pleading with Spain not to conduct lead testing in the home or to speak with neighbours.
Spain, who has since retired, said in an interview that Benning families expressed concern that notifying outsiders might anger commanders and harm careers.
“Something became obvious to me as I worked there,” he said. “You and your family cannot make trouble for base command”
State environmental records show that Jana Martin, another mother on the block, had a four-year-old son who suffered for months from severe vomiting and belly pain – common symptoms of lead exposure. She and the doctors were mystified. “I couldn’t even get a job because my kid was so sick,” Martin said. She had put in two maintenance requests to fix chipping paint, but Villages of Benning didn’t respond for months, Martin said.
When Martin’s husband met Cale Brown, the colonel urged the family to act. The Martins bought testing swabs online. They lit up bright red, indicating exposed lead paint.
Finally, in October 2016, housing managers moved the Martins out temporarily and replaced their windows. State inspectors only learned about the case when Martin called seeking assistance.
By the time Rainbow resident Dana Sackett left a voicemail on a state lead hotline last year, inspectors knew the street well.
“Another Rainbow row site at Ft. Benning,” one wrote.
Sackett, a mother of two, is a PhD toxicologist. Her husband is a lawyer with the Army Rangers. After moving to the street, she spotted paint hazards and complained.
Villages of Benning initially declined to fix them, state files say. Then mould spread in an upstairs closet, and repairs for that problem went ahead while Sackett and her girls temporarily relocated. She demanded the workers address paint hazards, too.
The landlords hired workers to scrape lead paint off the home. They lacked the required safety certifications and protective gear to conduct lead abatement, Army records show.
The Army says it has since taken steps to ensure all Benning workers dealing with lead paint are properly certified
Last fall, Villages of Benning told Sackett the work was done and her family could move back. She found paint scrapings and dust, the records show, and refused to return unless housing managers could show the home wouldn’t poison her girls.
Days later, Villages of Benning declared the property a “contamination area” and had Sackett sign papers promising not to enter. “It was one of the most stressful things I’ve been through,” she said.
Six months later, 103 Rainbow Avenue stood vacant. At another Rainbow Avenue home, paint was peeling from doors and a window by a child’s bed. A bathroom faucet leaked brown goop. A pizza-sized black mould bloom covered a ceiling. Outside, old paint crumbled from window frames, steps and a garage.
Lab testing at Columbia showed four of six paint samples from the home exceeded lead safety standards, including one from beside the child’s bed. The family reported the findings to Benning officials and is now moving.
About a mile from Rainbow Avenue lies Perkins Village, a cluster of drab mid-century homes that isn’t supposed to exist.
Benning’s development plans called for all 180 Perkins houses to be razed years ago and replaced with 228 new Mission-style homes. Just a handful of the old homes were torn down, and none of the new ones have been built. Reuters tested two homes in Perkins Village. Both had visibly deteriorating paint with lead above federal safety standards.
The Benning contractors wound up building just over half of the 3,185 new homes that were promised back when the housing was privatised. As a result, records show, nearly three out of five Benning homes still contain lead.
The Army said it’s satisfied with the results of the building project. It said it doesn’t know whether any children living in Benning’s older homes have tested high for lead in recent years. The base’s data system can’t track where children with elevated lead levels were living when they were tested.
Darlena Brown said Villages of Benning wasn’t aware of JC’s poisoning, either, until she spoke up
Court records show the Browns’ lawsuit was settled earlier this year. As a precondition of settlement talks, the Benning contractors demanded the Browns stop communicating with Reuters and stop mentioning the dispute publicly.
This January, on the private Facebook page where military families share their worries, Darlena Brown revised an earlier post. It still recounts her son’s poisoning but omits any mention of the landlords.
She changed the title, too. It’s now called “Darlena’s Story (The silenced version).”
(Additional reporting by M.B. Pell in New York and Deborah Nelson in Washington. Editing by Ronnie Greene)