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An officer who says she was discharged from the Navy for alerting senior officials of the potential health dangers of open-air burn pits and improperly stored water at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, is suing to get her job back.
Former Lt. Cmdr. Celeste Santana, an environmental health expert, said in documents filed Aug. 1 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that she was relieved from duty at the base in 2009 in retaliation for reporting “serious environmental health issues” affecting the safety of U.S. troops and local Afghans.
According to Santana, troops showered and washed their hands and food in bacteria-laden water and were exposed to chemicals in bottled water stored at high temperatures. Their health also was endangered by the proximity of their quarters and offices to burn pits where “several tons of toxic material was burned daily.”
Santana said when she tried to warn senior officers of the issues, she was instructed to stop taking samples and “stand down” for “exhaustion.” She later was relieved of her duties for “loss of confidence” and sent home, but not before she reported a sexual assault she believes was in retaliation for reporting health and safety issues outside her chain of command.
“She was doing her job and doing it too well,” said Santana’s attorney, retired Navy Cmdr. John Wells, who acknowledged Santana’s career was checkered — a roller coaster of high marks, awards and “early promote” recommendations alternating with equal opportunity complaints, sexual harassment charges and downgraded fitness reports.
But she was asked for, by name, for the 2009 deployment with Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan Combat Element.
Once she arrived at Camp Leatherneck, she found deficiencies that posed risks to troop health, according to her court filing, including plastic foam, plastics and computers burned in the burn pits; potable and nonpotable water contaminated with fecal matter and bacteria; and food safety problems.
In 2011, an Institute of Medicine panel concluded there was insufficient data to determine whether exposure to open-air burn pits can be conclusively linked to pulmonary disease, heart problems or cancer reported by troops.
But they noted that studies and data suggest service in Iraq or Afghanistan may be associated with long-term health conditions because of high concentrations of particulate matter in the air, both natural and man-made.
More than 2,000 troops have contacted the advocacy group Burn Pits 360 about health problems they believe are related to living or working near the pits, and VA earlier this year established a registry for troops exposed to burn pits to document their health conditions.
Santana is seeking to have her discharge — based on her being passed over twice for promotion and a psychiatric diagnosis of “adjustment disorder” given to her during a post-deployment screening — overturned so she can put in at least three more years of service and reach the 20-year mark.
Wells thinks she has a good shot, saying he has reason to believe Santana’s medical records were tampered with and include a forged admittance to having suicidal thoughts.
By policy, the Defense Department does not discuss ongoing litigation in which it is involved. The Navy did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Wells said his client will press for reinstatement and a “fair shot at the O-5 board.”
“No one should get fired for doing their job,” he said.