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Fort Sill under scrutiny after soldiers' complaints

Fort Sill_On Monday Fort Sill was under scrutiny.  Two shocking articles were published in the national newspaper, USA Today, quoted wounded Fort Sill soldiers as saying that they are forced to live in moldy barracks as they recover from war injuries.  The allegations follow reports of substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in March, 2007, and details of similar conditions at a Fort Bragg earlier this year.

Fort Sill officials invited the media to see for themselves, and pointed out that mold in the barracks exists, but insist that they have been treating the situation for months.  The Director of Army Staff contacted Fort Sill's Post Commander, Major General Peter Vangjel, with the intent of giving a full report on the situation to the Commander-in-Chief, President Bush.

Fort Sill says it was treating the mold infested rooms prior the soldiers going to the press with their complaints, and say that they were aware of four rooms that had mold.  However, officials say that the remainder of the building is mold-free.  They were so confident with the healthy state of the barracks that they let 7News in the rooms selected by the reporter.

General Vangjel says he is troubled by the articles.  "The thing that bothered me the most, based on everything that I've seen people do here, is this idea that there's a concern that went unheeded for months," he said.  The dissatisfied soldiers in the "Warriors in Transition Unit (WTU)" went to USA Today to tell of the moldy barracks, and say that when they attempted to address the issue, they were told to keep quiet about the mold.  Vangjel says that the captain at the heart of the issue was following safety protocol when he ordered the soldiers quiet, but handled the situation in the wrong way. 

Vangjel says that aside from the complaints about the captain involved, Fort Sill received no complaints about mold.  "This was a surprise to me," he said.  "I know there was some pulsing going on...there were some folks going through the unit going, 'you know, do you want to go talk to this reporter?'  Your call, because the one thing we want to do here, the bottom line for me is, hey, if there's a problem out there, let's solve it." 

Vangjel says that the WTU soldiers are housed in the best barracks on post, and the buildings are only six years old.  He says the buildings also are inspected annually, and in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal, they have been more proactive.  Since April, Vangjel says they have found mold in vents in two rooms, and in two adjoining kitchen sections of two double barracks rooms.  He says the mold was tested, and found to be "common" and not harmful.  "If you go back to your house, and pull the vents back - the ones that are screwed in - pull those back, take a look inside with a flashlight, I got a feeling you're going to see some interesting stuff in there," said Fort Sill Garrison Commander Colonel Robert Bridgford. 

Bridford says the mold is growing where storms hit the building, and Fort Sill is investigating whether puddle water on ledges is the how the mold is coming through the walls.  Officials say that Oklahoma weather and temperature inside the barracks could create ideal conditions for mold growth.  "The temperature [inside] doesn't get that low, but it gets pretty cold in there," he said.  "You get a dramatic temperature - hot temperature, cold temperature mixed together - condensation, and that'll happen in those vents, and that'll create the condition for mold and mildew."  The Army is spending $335,000 to replace the vents in the two buildings where tests have found mold. 

One soldier whose complaints were recorded, was quoted as saying he awoke in the morning with "crud" in his eyes and phlegm in his throat.  Vangjel says the soldier didn't see a doctor to report medical problems, so it does not prove that mold was the cause of the soldier's condition.  Also addressed were soldiers' complaints that they were put in stressful situations outside of the barracks.  They reported that they were forced to attend early morning physical therapy sessions while heavily medicated.  However, Vangjel says that once a complaint from the soldier was issued, accommodations were made. 

The article also quoted a soldier as saying "Article 15" punishments pulling rank and lowering pay were handed out "like candy."  Vangjel says that isn't true.  He says that 10 out of 12 Article 15's that were issued were to soldiers caught abusing marijuana and cocaine, which is not acceptable.


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