Karen Schroeder - Acting Sergeant, Military Police, U.S. Army
Karen Schroeder had recently graduated from high school and was working as a waitress and cook in a very small town in northern Wisconsin. She wanted to get out of town, but didn’t feel quite ready for college. Joining the Army seemed like her best option to move her life forward.
So, in early 1977, at the age of 18, she began Army Basic Training at Fort McClellan. After the standard 9 weeks of Basic Training, she continued on at Fort McClellan for another 5 months of Military Police training. She describes working hard, playing hard and keeping up with the rigorous training. “I was too afraid not to,” she chuckles. She doesn’t remember seeing or experiencing anything unusual during her time at Fort McClellan. She said she wouldn’t have known what to look for or notice. She says that she didn’t know Fort McClellan was a center for chemical weapons storage or training until about two years ago when she came across a Facebook group of Fort McClellan veterans discussing their health issues as related to chemical exposures at the Army installation.
“I was housed in the old World War II barracks and my understanding, after reading some documents, is there was a lot of chemical storage close by. So I don’t doubt that I’ve been exposed to a multitude of things. And then we had Monsanto outside the gate. …and then they had to do a clean-up because it was a toxic site, I mean…”
After Fort McClellan, Karen was moved on to Fort Carson, in southern Colorado. There she worked in a demanding job as a legal clerk for the law enforcement command office and the Judge Advocate General (JAG), processing military court martial proceedings and other similar duties. Her rank was Specialist E-4, but she uses the title Acting Sergeant, because she worked in a position usually filled by a Sergeant, at least a rank higher than she was.
Karen was a good soldier and her superiors encouraged her to continue her Army service and attend Army Officer Candidate School. “I knew at that time, the Army just wasn’t for me, so I chose to get out.” She left the service in 1979 with an Honorable Discharge.
Karen remembers only minor illnesses while in the service, but soon after leaving the Army - at about 20 or 21 years old - she began having health problems. It began with heart and circulation issues and an ovarian dysphasia - a benign cyst. Next came recurring and painful cysts on her ovaries and a resulting complete hysterectomy in her late 30s. Then came the aches and pain throughout her body, fatigue, osteoporosis, hypothyroidism, and depression. She’s experienced immune issues like allergies that have required sinus surgery. Very recently a spot and some nodules were found in her lungs and she’s anxiously awaiting an appointment this month with a pulmonologist for further testing. “It’s been a new diagnosis every year since I was about 21.”
Karen, now 61, is a software consultant and works as a resource manager for a large, international technology company. She describes her job as mentally demanding, which can challenge her in light of her health issues that can cause her fogginess and memory issues at times. She describes developing coping mechanisms over the years - like being diligent about taking very detailed notes that she can refer back to.
Karen describes a bad day as, “I’m tired from the inside out,” she says. “My bones are tired, my muscles are tired, so just getting out of bed is difficult.” She describes a good day as having enough energy to get out of bed, being able to get a good day in at her home office and feeling productive. She says she has to push herself most days. “I don’t know what it’s like to live without a headache.” Karen’s not ready to give in to the pain or challenges though and soldiers on. “I need to be functional. I just don’t want to be dysfunctional or on disability or what have you, I’m just not ready for that.”
“I would love for the federal government, the Army in particular to take ownership, to say yeah we did this, yeah you were exposed, yes you can get disability, yes to any other services. I want them to own up to it. …I have zero faith that this will ever happen.”