Claim Made By Hundreds Of Former Airman Threatening To Reveal Depth Of Nuclear Contamination At Shuttered Air Force Base

Over a thousand people, hundreds of whom no longer live in Victorville or California, embarked on a course of action last month that carries with it the prospect of forcing a long-in-the-coming reckoning of the cavalier comportment of the U.S. Department of Defense and in particular the U.S. Air Force in their stewardship of a now-discarded relic of the Cold War located in San Bernardino County’s High Desert. That action also carries with it the possibility that the City of Victorville, which in the 1990s competed so hard against the City of Adelanto to successfully obtain from the Department of Defense annexation and civilian use conversion rights to long-shuttered George Air Force Base to create what is now known as Southern California Logistics Airport, may come to rue its bureaucratic victory over its neighboring municipality as the ecological nightmare it has inherited becomes ever clearer.
The Military Accountability and Transparency Alliance, known by its acronym MAATA and which numbers among its members more than 1,500 Air Force veterans or their spouses who once served or resided at George Air Force Base, on June 30 lodged an administrative claim against the federal government relating to its members’ exposure to toxic chemicals, substances and radiation while at the base. The federal government has the option of responding positively to the claim and seeking to redress to the satisfaction of the claimants the issues and problems raised and referenced in the complaint or rejecting the claim. Upon the claim being rejected, the claimants then have the legal right to sue the government.
The reports of nuclear contamination at the former George Air Force Base near Victorville are legion.
In late August 1973, Frank Vera, a then-20-year-old airman stationed at the base, was motorcycling at an extreme corner of what was then the base grounds, in an authorized recreational area for the base’s personnel, when he came across a mostly-buried metal barrel in what was known as the base’s “southeast disposal area.” Curious, Vera pried the top off the barrel, which appeared to be filled with a substance Vera would later describe as roughly the consistency of powdered porcelain that was a light brownish red or tan in color. Shortly after he began digging into the barrel using his hands and a stick, he passed out.
Vera awoke in the base’s infirmary, bleeding from every orifice in his body. His heartbeat would race for minutes at a time, exceeding 200 beats per minute, and then precipitously drop, to as few as 30 per minute. Likewise, his blood pressure was librating radically, at one minute ranging into the neighborhood of 200/170 and then dropping, reaching standard systolic and diastolic pressure and continuing to decline as low as 60/40 before zooming upward again.
Vera has had extreme health challenges ever since. He had reached what was considered his full adult height, 5 foot 11 inches, more than a year previously, at the age of 19. After his encounter with the barrel, however, he began to experience further growth, reaching a height of 6 foot 3 inches, although his growth was not even, such that one leg grew significantly longer than the other, causing a pronounced unevenness in his pelvic region that would make walking difficult for him.
Furthermore, Vera experienced a variety of physical ailments including hematological damage, neurological damage, further skeletal damage, pulmonary emphysema and chronic lymphatic conditions.
As early as 1975, female personnel at George and the wives of airmen serving at the base were being advised that they should not become pregnant while living on the base grounds.
In a June 2018 Military Times article by Tara Copp, female Airman Kate Kelly, who was stationed at George in 1975 and worked on the George flight line, related that she “fell ill almost immediately upon arriving at George,” experiencing chronic vaginal and urinary tract infections, which base medical personnel treated with antibiotics. According to Copp, Kelly “ultimately had three miscarriages and was never able to have children.”
Additionally, according to Copp, Kelly met her former husband, Ronald Holdren, who was stationed at George. Holdren died in 2008, according to Copp, of multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in plasma cells.
Copp’s June 2018 Military Times article further related the unfortunate experience of Lisa McCrea, a military wife, who resided on George Air Force Base with her husband while he was stationed there from 1987 to 1991. According to Copp’s Military Times article, when McCrea was 19, she was pregnant and “in her second trimester began to bleed. She’d miscarried. By the time her husband got her to the base emergency room, he had to carry her in, she’d lost so much blood.”
Over the years, after a host of doctors diagnosed Vera as suffering from radiation exposure, the Air Force engaged in a curious round of denial with regard to the former airman’s efforts to actuate the provision of care the Pentagon had designated as appropriate for what were designated as “atomic veterans.” When Vera’s physicians sought to verify that Vera had absorbed nuclear material by means of a body radioactive content analysis, the Department of Defense refused authorization of the tests on the grounds of national security. When Vera pushed beyond that, at one point the Air Force directly maintained that no weapons grade materials were ever present at George Air Force Base.
That claim was problematic.
Built as the Victorville Army Airfield in 1941, just prior to the United States’ entrance into World War II, what would later become George Air Force Base was utilized for training Army Air Corps pilots during the war. It was placed on standby status in September 1945, shortly after hostilities in that conflict concluded. In 1950, three years after the Army Air Corps was reconstituted as the Air Force, the base was reactivated in June of that year and renamed in honor of Brigadier General Harold Huston George.
Over the years George was a key component for the training of fighter pilots sent into aerial combat during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as being a primary base for the Western Air Defense Force. As such it was home to the 1st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, the 94th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 27th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 71st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 94th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 452nd Light Bombardment Wing, the 116th Fighter-Bomber Wing, 131st Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 456th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 518th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 327th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 329th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 413th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 831st Air Division, the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 431st Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 32nd Tactical Fighter Wing, the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 479th Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 479th Fighter-Day Wing, the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 131st Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 434th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 434th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 435th Combat Crew Training Squadron, the 4435th Tactical Fighter Replacement Squadron, the 4452nd Combat Crew Training Squadron, the 20th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 21st Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 21st Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 4535th Combat Crew Training Squadron, the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 563rd Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 563rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 39th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 35th Tactical Training Wing, the 35th Tactical Wing, the 37th Tactical Training Wing, the 32rd/8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 562nd Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, and the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Among the aircraft deployed at the base were F-51 Mustangs, Douglas B-26 Invaders, North American F-86 Sabres, Republic F-84 Thunderjets, F-102s, A F-106s, F-4 Phantoms and F-105s.
George Air Force Base was officially decommissioned in December 1992.
Throughout the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, George Air Force Base was a key element of the strategy and facilities intended to provide an umbrella over Central and Southern California, Arizona and Southern Nevada to prevent the Soviet Union’s atomic and nuclear weaponry from raining down onto American soil. Planes such as the F-102 Delta Dagger, the F-105 Thunderchief, the F-106 Delta Dart and the F-4 Phantom, with ordnance such as the Genie nuclear air-to-air missile affixed to their undercarriages, would take off from George, and fly in a patrol pattern at 30,000 feet or higher, from which perch they could be vectored into position by ground-based radar control with access to the distant early warning radar system or satellite-based radar profiles of any incoming aircraft or missiles to attempt to launch their interceptor missiles to prevent a successful attack on the U.S. mainland.
Ultimately, with the political ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Glasnost which he espoused eventually reaching fruition, a thaw in the Cold War occurred, bringing with it the de-erection of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and ultimately the fragmenting of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the Department of Defense made good on the tentative plans that had been floated as early as 1987 to decommission George Air Force Base.
In short order, the two cities closest to it, Victorville and Adelanto, engaged each other in what turned into a seven-year-running battle, costing Adelanto over $25 million in administrative and legal fees and expenses, and Victorville more than $30 million, to take control of the base property. Victorville, adroitly led by then-Mayor Terry Caldwell, an attorney, and Jim Cox, who had been city manager since 1969, networked with the County of San Bernardino, the Town of Apple Valley and the City of Hesperia in the guise of the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority, a joint powers agency, to draw up a competing reuse plan to what Adelanto was proposing. Equally importantly, Victorville, where the city council was composed of a majority of Republicans, cultivated a close relationship with the area’s Congressman, Republican Jerry Lewis, outmaneuvering Adelanto, which had leadership that was predominantly associated with the Democratic Party. Ultimately, the Department of Defense awarded the lion’s share of the base – about 75 percent – to the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority, which then deferred to Victorville in allowing it to annex the base property. The federal government maintained title to what was variously referred to as “strategic” or “problematic” land.
Along the way, the Air Force and the Department of Defense acknowledged that the base was beset with a host of contamination issues. Most prominent among the chemicals the federal government said permeated the base’s tarmac, the soil and the groundwater below it was a solvent used in servicing the planes throughout the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and into the early 1990s – trichloroethylene, known by its acronym, TCE. In addition, the Air Force readily admitted, there were other heavy industrial solvents that had been used at the base along with jet fuel ingredients such as ethylene dibromide, benzene and naphthalene, as well as chlorinated pesticides like dieldrin and aldrin. Even prior to the base being decommissioned, the Department of Defense in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990 had the base property declared an EPA Superfund site.
By the Spring of 2016, the Department of Defense/Air Force had had spent $101 million in Superfund money augmented by funding from the Pentagon’s base closure budget to engage in soil and water table remediation on and beneath the former base grounds. Since that time, at least $22 million of the remaining budgeted $53 million projected to complete the job has been expended.
Nevertheless, the Air Force and the Pentagon, even after the Cold War had drawn to a close, were reluctant to make full disclosure of the nuclear policy and military strategy and tactics that had been employed by the U.S. military. Denise Caron, the civilian Air Force employee who in 1993 was overseeing the clean-up of George, publicly stated that no radioactive materials had been present on the base. “We didn’t have a nuclear mission at George,” she asserted. “We didn’t use nukes. We didn’t use tactical nukes.”
Caron’s assertions resulted in a number of former airmen at the base coming forward to contradict her statements, including some who offered documentary and photographic evidence to back up their claims.
Vera, rebuffed by the Air Force, utilized the Freedom of Information Act to obtain internal Air Force documents disclosing a nuclear weapons testing decontamination center, referred to in Air Force parlance as a “hot washdown” facility, had been in place at George in the 1960s. The decontamination center was an inherent element of the Department of Defense’s efforts to obtain data by having planes purposefully fly into the mushroom clouds produced by thermonuclear explosions during atomic and nuclear weapons tests to photograph the internal environment of and area in the aftermath of an explosion and to collect samples of radioactive debris. The information Vera obtained pertained to, according to the documentation, “Nevada Test Site (NTS) training operations,” with cloud debris sampling flights staged from George Air Force Base.
Vera further obtained information generated during an Office of Special Investigations (O.S.I.) investigation undertaken at the base in 1989 and 1990, which was aimed at determining if weapons-grade materials had been disposed of at the base. The investigator heading that inquiry was Christian Filipiak. The standards applied in that investigation required that findings of radioactive contamination not be reported until radioactive contamination readings from a single well were confirmed by two subsequent readings. According to Filipiak, who retired shortly after the investigation at George was completed, the wells at George that showed the presence of radiation were capped in each case after a second sampling showing radioactive contamination was drawn, thus circumventing any mandated report of that contamination.
In December 1993, Caron asserted that the O.S.I. investigation had determined no weapons grade materials had ever been disposed of at the base. Filipiak, however, contradicted Caron, stating publicly that the parameters of the report, as dictated by the Air Force and the Department of Defense, had steered the investigation away from such a conclusion by limiting the scope and content of both the investigation and its report.
In 1994, then-Hesperia Councilman/Mayor Theron Honeycutt related to the publisher of the Sentinel who was then working as a reporter with the Victorville Desert Mountain Express that his company had been hired by the Air Force to go onto George and “cap,” i.e., fill with gravel and then cover with concrete, several existing wells.
Caron’s claims were discredited under an avalanche of data, including lab tests ordered by then-congressmen George Brown and Jerry Lewis and performed by Helgeson Scientific Services, which involved gamma radiation counts showing enriched uranium-235 and other unidentified radionuclides, believed to be Americium and strontium, had been present on the base. Also surfacing were surveys of water drawn from test wells showing the presence of radionuclides in the water table below the base.
The Air Force has continued to avoid publicly and directly addressing the issue of radioactive contamination at the base. Evidence has emerged over time that indicates both its military and civilian leaders have known for decades that nuclear contamination on the base property is a realty. That evidence is most stark in those areas where the Department of Defense has had to cooperate with state government agencies involved in certifying the livability of the former base property.
Nearly five years ago, Linda Stone of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board told the Sentinel, “The water board has information regarding radiological waste at Site RW009, located in the covered portion of the southeast disposal area of the former facility on land currently owned by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, south of Air Expressway Blvd. The Air Force issued a final remedial action completion report [for] Radioactive Disposal Site RW009 in November 2013. The water board deferred review of the radiological issues to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based on EPA’s expertise on human health risks. The EPA accepted the document and the Air Force’s request for no further action at RW009.”
In the body of the text for the remedial action completion report, the Air Force sought to downplay the seriousness of the contamination issue at the southeast disposal area. Page 2-4 of that document states “Site characterization activities were performed in 1994 and served to investigate the potential for the presence of low-level radioactive wastes. These activities determined background levels of total gamma radiation and quantified radionuclide concentrations. All excavated materials were radiologically screened via a material sorting plant and sampled for analysis where necessary. All soils which represented background were backfilled. This investigation thoroughly explored Site RW009 areas suspected of containing radioactive materials, and two radioactive sources were identified, a 2.3-microcurie cesium-137 source and an electron tube (vacuum tube) containing thorium and uranium. These items were disposed via destructive testing at an off-site analytical laboratory. The identification of very few radioactive materials indicated that large-scale disposal of radioactive waste did not occur at IRP Site RW009. This work demonstrated that no known radiological contamination remained and that the IRP Site RW009 disposal site was suitable for removal as an impacted site from the southeast disposal area.”
Stone further told the Sentinel, “The report also described two groundwater sampling events for radiologic constituents. The first event (1986) found gross alpha activities exceeded the maximum contaminant levels for drinking water in two of five wells at the site. The second event (1987) found all radiologic samples were below maximum contaminant levels in all five wells. Based on the data showing that the groundwater met drinking water standards, the water board did not require additional groundwater investigations for radiological constituents.”
More recently, documentation long buried by the Air Force has surfaced, including a secretive 1979 investigation by Dr. John Sabol, then the Air Force chief of environmental and contract programming. Sabol’s findings demonstrated that larger quantities of radioactive waste were dumped in the disposal area than the Air Force has officially documented or acknowledged and that the intensity of radiation exceeds that which would have been a product of discarded x-ray machines or 1950s and 1960s era electronic vacuum tubes.
In 2015, when the Sentinel approached Don Gronstal, then the environmental coordinator with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center overseeing the Air Force remediation effort at George whose office is at McClellan Air Force Base in Northern California, Gronstal agreed to field any questions put to him relating to the environmental circumstance at the former George Air Force Base, but requested that those questions be put in writing. After the Sentinel did as requested, Gronstal broke off all further contact with the Sentinel, and never responded to the questions.
In publicly available documents, the Air Force has acknowledged groundwater at, around or below the base is “contaminated with jet fuel, trichloroethylene, pesticides and nitrates. Soil is contaminated with total petroleum hydrocarbons, dioxins, construction debris, medical wastes, pesticides, semi-volatile organic compounds and various inorganic compounds.”
One telling indication is that the Air Force has closed off six spots on the former base grounds that will be inaccessible even after the bulk of the rest of the base has been fully transferred to Victorville. It is believed at least two of those are “hot spots” where radioactive materials were discarded and where radioactivity is still present in the soil and water. There have been unconfirmed reports that contractors working for the federal government have done extensive excavation in those areas that are to remain as federal property.
In 2016, in an article authored by Dan Ross which was published by both the Sentinel and Truthout, an independent reporting organization, the experience of Terrine Crooks, originally from New Hampshire, who had joined the Air Force and was stationed at George Air Force Base beginning in the summer of 1980, was related.
Crooks met her husband at George. Toward the end of 1981, she became pregnant. Her son, Brian, was born 13 weeks prematurely in April 1982. Within three months of his birth, Brian sustained multiple brain hemorrhages, thereafter developing, according to Ross’s report, an array of ongoing health conditions and disabilities, including cerebral palsy. Upon reaching the age of 30, Terrine Crooks’ own health deteriorated, and she endured endometriosis, uterine fibroids and heavy bleeding during menstruation, necessitating she have a hysterectomy at the age of 31. At the age of 40, she had a bilateral mastectomy.
Ross reported how Terrine Crooks eventually related her health challenges to her toxic exposure while in the military, whereupon she made a claim to the Veteran’s Administration. In 2014, Crooks prevailed, with the Veteran’s Administration making a finding that her medical conditions were “at least as likely as not” caused by her military service. George Air Force Base was mentioned in the ruling. In 2016, Crooks and her husband were yet caring for their 34-year-old son at their home in Florida, according to Ross.
It has turned out that well over a thousand servicemen and servicewomen who were stationed at George, along with their wives and husbands and offspring, have had similar experiences. A catalyst for that realization was when former Air Force personnel once stationed at George and their spouses, ones who had moved to far-flung locations all over the country after leaving the military, in an effort to preserve their friendships created an informal and loosely knit internet and telephone social club. The more they interacted in this forum, the more they came to learn that many, indeed most of them, were bedeviled with what they eventually came to believe or recognized were the aftereffects of their shared experience in the military, in particular at George Air Force Base. Many of the women suffered from a plethora of conditions that included ovarian cysts and uterine tumors, had undergone hysterectomies, and had experienced miscarriages at a rate ten times higher than the national average. Their children had an inordinate number of birth defects. Those women and their husbands were dealing with multiple maladies of a similar nature, including leukemia and multiple lymphomas, rare cancers and peripheral neuropathy.
Born of their interaction was the Military Accountability and Transparency Alliance. Based on their collective belief that they are living with the devastation wrought by toxic chemical and radiation exposure while they were living at George Air Force Base, the alliance’s members filed their claim on June 30.
Much is riding on whether the Department of Defense/Air Force will recognize the claim or whether it will be rejected, necessitating that the matter go to trial. A trial would very likely entail much of the hidden documentation of what was buried at George Air Force Base – physically, literally and figuratively – being unearthed. That will have implications for more than just those former airmen and their spouses and children. A revelation of the true extent of the contamination at Southern California Logistics Airport could mean that the aerodrome, for so long considered a desirable asset that Victorville was willing to spend more than $30 million to secure, might become a liability.
Multiple municipal water supply wells are threatened by the contamination at George, including wells supplying water to a federal prison facility built on land that was formerly part of the base, and which is to remain as federal property. It is unclear who – the federal government or the City of Victorville – will need to defray the cost of any remediation of the airport property to which the city has already taken title.
-Mark Gutglueck

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