Privatizing U.S. military housing was supposed to protect service members’ families. Instead, some of their children are being poisoned by lead. A Reuters investigation unearths dangers in base homes, lapses in military oversight, and a code of silence keeping families at risk.
Children poisoned by lead on U.S. Army bases as hazards go ignored
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Army Colonel J. Cale Brown put his life on the line in two tours of duty in Afghanistan, earning a pair of Bronze Stars for his service. In between those deployments, Brown received orders to report to Fort Benning, the sprawling Georgia base that proudly describes itself as the century-old home of the U.S. infantry.
He was pleased. His wife, Darlena, was pregnant with their second child, and the Browns owned a home in the area. Their 10-month-old son, John Cale Jr, was a precocious baby, babbling a dozen words and exploring solid foods.
Cale’s duties as a battalion commander required him to live on base. So instead of moving into their own house, in 2011 the Browns rented a place inside Fort Benning. The 80-year-old white stucco home had hosted generations of officers.
Like most family housing on U.S. bases today, the home wasn’t owned and operated by the military. It was managed by Villages of Benning, a partnership between two private companies and the U.S. Army, whose website beckons families to “enjoy the luxuries of on-post living.”
The symptoms began suddenly. At 18 months, JC would awake screaming. He began refusing food, stopped responding to his name and lost most of his words.
“He was disappearing into an isolated brain,” Darlena recalls.
For nearly a year, doctors probed: Was it colic? Autism? Ear infections? Then, in late 2012, came a call from JC’s pediatrician: He had high levels of lead in his blood. When Darlena told Villages of Benning of his poisoning, contractors ordered home testing.
“It was because of where we were that this happened.”
The results: At least 113 spots in the home had lead paint, including several peeling or crumbling patches, requiring $26,150 in lead abatement. Villages of Benning moved the Browns into another old house next door.
The heavy metal had stunted JC’s brain, medical records reviewed by Reuters show. At age two, he was diagnosed with a developmental disorder caused by lead. Now eight, JC has undergone years of costly therapy. He excels at reading and swimming, but still struggles with speech, hyperactivity and social interactions.
When a reporter met JC last year, the boy looked away and repeated a phrase from a children’s TV show: “Max, what did you do? Max, what did you do?” Later, JC sat outside and watched sunlight gliding through his fingers, seemingly lost in reverie.
“I’m sad that my son lost his future,” Darlena said. “It was because of where we were that this happened.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen to families like the Browns, who move often between posts for the U.S. armed forces, trusting base landlords and military brass to provide safe shelter for children and spouses.
Cale Brown, a 46-year-old active-duty colonel, now works on detail to the White House on the National Security Council, helping to protect the country from complex threats like North Korea’s nuclear program.
For years, he has told the Army of failures to defend children on U.S. bases from lead poisoning, a preventable household health hazard. Ingesting the heavy metal can severely affect mental and physical development, especially in children, causing brain damage and other potentially lifelong health impacts. But poisoning is avoidable if old homes containing lead paint are properly monitored and maintained.
“There is no acceptable number of children that the Army can allow to be so egregiously hurt,” Cale wrote in a letter to the Army Office of the Inspector General last year, describing the poisoning of JC and hundreds of other military kids he was aware of. He hasn't received a response to the letter's concerns.
The Browns’ story and others, told publicly for the first time here, reveal a toxic scourge inside homes on military bases. Previously undisclosed military and state health records, and testing by Reuters for lead in soldiers’ homes, show problems at some of America’s largest military installations.
Federal law defines lead-based paint as containing 0.5 percent or more lead by weight. Sales have been banned since 1978. But many older homes still contain lead paint, which is particularly dangerous when it peels, chips or turns to dust – easy for kids to swallow or breathe in.
Reuters tested five homes at Benning, using a methodology designed with a Columbia University geochemist. All five contained hazardous levels of deteriorating lead paint within reach of children, in one case exceeding the federal threshold by a factor of 58.
Testing turned up problems elsewhere as well. At West Point, New York, home of the United States Military Academy, paint chips falling from a family’s front door contained lead at 19 times the federal threshold.
At Kentucky’s Fort Knox, whose vaults hold much of America’s gold reserves, Reuters found paint peeling from a covered porch where small kids play. It contained 50 percent lead by weight, or 100 times the threshold.
The Army requires abatement when certified testing identifies deteriorating lead paint in base homes. Yet it also “discourages” this type of lead-paint inspection, in part because lead abatement can be costly.
These homes put military kids at risk. Reuters obtained medical data from the Army showing that at least 31 small children tested high for lead at a Fort Benning hospital over a recent six-year period. All tested above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for elevated lead levels – 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Any child who tests high warrants a public health response, the CDC says.
Army data from other clinics showed at least 77 more high blood-lead tests for children at Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Riley in Kansas, and Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas.
From 2011 to 2016, Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas – which processes blood tests from many bases nationwide – registered more than 1,050 small children who tested above the CDC’s elevated threshold, the center’s records show.
The thousand-plus blood results, obtained from Army bases through Freedom of Information Act requests, provide only a glimpse of the problem. A $10 finger-prick test can spot a child exposed to lead, yet millions of U.S. children are never screened. Just how many are tested across all military bases isn’t clear. But for those who are, the results often go unreported to state public health agencies that attend to poisoned kids.
Reuters found that Fort Benning in Georgia was not reporting lead results for small children tested at the base’s hospital. Nor was Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Georgia and Texas, like most states, require the reporting of all these lead testing results to state health authorities.
The Army declined to comment on the lead hazards Reuters detected at base homes. Asked about the broader findings of this article, a spokeswoman said the Army conducts yearly visits to ensure housing is safe and follows the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics when responding to children with high lead tests. Housing managers classify resident complaints about lead paint as “urgent” and seek to respond within hours, she said.
“We are committed to providing a safe and secure environment on all of our installations,” Army spokeswoman Colonel Kathleen Turner said in a written statement, “and to providing the highest quality of care to our service members, their families, and all those entrusted to our care.”
The two contractors that operate Villages of Benning – Clark Realty Capital and Michaels Management Services – didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The military’s lapses in lead safeguards leave legions of kids at risk. Private contractors house some 700,000 Americans at more than 100 military installations nationwide, including an estimated 100,000 children ages 0 through 5.
Benning alone is home to some 2,000 small children. Of its 4,001 family homes, 2,274 “have lead-based paint present in them,” according to a Villages of Benning memo from November 2017. The mere presence of lead paint doesn’t make a home dangerous, but when the paint deteriorates, it is a “hazard and needs immediate attention,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
“These are families making sacrifices by serving,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a toxicity researcher at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who reviewed Reuters’ findings. “It appears that lead poisoning is sometimes the cost of their loyalty to the military.”
Reuters began examining lead poisoning at U.S. bases last year, and in April began seeking interviews with Army officials. The Army declined to talk at the time.
After Reuters informed the Army and families that reporters had found hazards on bases, Fort Benning’s garrison commander, Colonel Clinton W. Cox, wrote to residents that “unknown persons” were seeking to test homes for lead and advised them not to cooperate. In a June 30 “Resident Safety Alert,” Cox told families to call 911 or base security to report such “suspicious behavior.”
Cox said he was unaware of who had done lead testing in base homes when he sent the letter. “What we’re most concerned about is our residents’ security,” he said in a brief phone interview.
But behind the scenes, the Army also began quietly addressing some of the problems.
After reporters asked why it often wasn’t informing state health departments about poisoned children, the Army overhauled its practices to comply with state laws. When Reuters found unsafe conditions at Fort Knox, contractors announced a neighborhood-wide lead abatement program. After reporters found the neurotoxin in a child’s bedroom at Benning, base command approved the family’s move to another home.
For most military families, living on base is an option, not a requirement, though it can be enticing. The gated enclaves are considered safe havens that build esprit de corps. They offer support for spouses of deployed troops, access to military schools, lodging for low-income families. About 30 percent of service families live on bases.
By the 1990s, the U.S. stock of military family housing – nearly 300,000 homes in all service branches – was decaying and starved of funding. “Continuing to neglect these issues runs the risk of collapsing the force,” the Department of Defense warned in a 1996 briefing document presented to a congressional sub-committee.
The same year, the military began privatizing its homes. The initiative was the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing. It was meant to rid bases of substandard accommodations and save taxpayers billions by having contractors foot the rebuilding bill. In return, contractors would enjoy a steady flow of rental income over 50-year leases.
The military knew hazards lurked in its housing. In 2005, the Army released an environmental study that said 75 percent of its 90,000 homes nationwide didn’t meet its own standards of quality or safety. Of Benning, it said: “As homes deteriorate, the risk of children’s being exposed to hazardous materials … would increase.”
Twenty years after privatization began, in 2016, a DOD Inspector General report found that poor maintenance and oversight left service families vulnerable to “pervasive” health and safety hazards.
An increase in Pentagon housing funds – $133 million – was earmarked this fiscal year, largely for overseas bases, where the military still owns its housing. Meanwhile, in recent years the Defense Department has reduced the housing subsidies that fund upkeep of privatized homes on U.S. bases, leading to fewer maintenance staff, the Army has noted.
The age and condition of base homes vary, and lead hazards are hardly exclusive to military housing. A two-year Reuters investigation identified more than 3,800 neighborhoods nationwide – mostly in civilian settings – with alarming levels of poisoning.
Military families can face special difficulties if they complain about hazards in their homes, however. They are taking on landlords who are in business with their employer. Among the 60 interviewed for this story, more than half expressed fear that being identified could hurt a military member’s career.
But in private, some trade stories about unsafe homes. Darlena Brown helped create a private Facebook group with nearly 700 members. Many have shared photos of peeling paint, mold or other toxins at home and tales of unresponsive base landlords.
Reuters devised a plan to test for hazards in the homes and yards of some of these concerned families. Working with Columbia University scientists, reporters provided home lead testing to 11 families on seven bases. Eight homes had blatant hazards in children’s play areas – visibly peeling patches of lead-based paint.
Deteriorating paint from these houses – in Georgia, Texas, New York and Kentucky – had “very high” or “extremely high” lead content that puts children at immediate risk, said Alexander van Geen, a research professor of geochemistry who oversaw the lab analysis at Columbia’s Lamont Earth Observatory.
The true number of children exposed on bases is hidden by factors including the military’s spotty blood-testing and lapses in reporting to civilian authorities.
To prevent further exposure, most state health departments track lead-poisoned children and mandate inspections in their homes.
Yet when Georgia health officials repeatedly sought test results from Benning, the base refused to share them, alluding to exemptions for federal facilities, state email records show. No such exemptions exist.
“They do not report to us,” the head of Georgia’s lead-poisoning prevention program, Christy Kuriatnyk, vented about Fort Benning in an internal email to colleagues last year. “I’ve tried to get them to voluntarily report but that went nowhere.”
In April, Reuters presented the Army with evidence of its reporting lapses. In late July, the Army said it had “instituted new procedures to ensure that all reporting requirements are properly observed” nationwide.
At Benning, private contractors took over the base’s family housing in 2006. They pledged to demolish thousands of dilapidated homes and build almost 3,200 new ones within 10 years. Estimated cost: $602 million. At the time, 99 percent of Benning homes predated the 1978 U.S. ban on lead paint.
The contractors were also required to maintain nearly 500 historic Benning homes, and agreed to control lead, asbestos, mold, basement flooding and other risks.
In 2011, a Villages of Benning agent took the Browns on a home walk-through before they moved in. Darlena expressed concern about lead paint.
“You have nothing to worry about, Mrs. Brown,” she recalled being told. “We’ve never had any problem with lead.”
The same year, Benning Martin Army Community Hospital recorded seven high lead results for small children, hospital records show. The hospital says it doesn’t know whether children tested there lived on or off base.
After moving in, Darlena asked maintenance to fix paint chipping around windows, but was told by a supervisor that the crew couldn’t work on historic windows, she said.
In 2012, JC and as many as five other children had high lead tests at Benning’s hospital.
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.
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 favor 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.
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 neighbors.
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 mold 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 mold 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 privatized. 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
Ambushed at Home
By Joshua Schneyer and Andrea Januta
Visual editing: Sarah Slobin
Photo editing: Steve McKinley
Video: Tamara Lindstrom, Mike Wood and Craig Hettich
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Ronnie Greene