17 May ONLY ON WCNC: Military mom blames housing on children’s health issues
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This is one woman’s story about the deplorable housing conditions on a North Carolina military base — conditions she believes are behind her children’s serious health issues.
She testified before a closed-door hearing. So her story is now part of a congressional investigation into privatized housing on bases around the country.
Now, for the first time on camera, she is sharing that story with you.
"We did the ultrasound and they told us it was a boy."
At Heather Beckstrom’s 20 week ultrasound, she received shocking news.
"He has a cleft lip, a cleft palate and it’s quite substantial," she said. "But at the time we noticed his stomach is also not developed at all," she added. "There’s also a hole in his heart."
What Beckstrom didn’t know is that this was just the beginning of the heartbreak that started after they moved to Fort Bragg.
"Talk to me about your experience when you first moved to Fort Bragg," asked NBC Charlotte’s Sarah French.
"When we got there, they said it’s an old house. They gave us this pamphlet that said you’re going to have lead, lead paint," Beckstrom said.
The "they" she is referring to is Corvias, one of many private companies that provide housing for 700,000 families at 100 bases across the country.
Those companies are now at the center of a major congressional investigation that includes thousands of cases of respiratory and chronic illnesses linked to exposure to black mold, asbestos, lead poisoning, and rodent infestations.
"So when did you start noticing issues with housing," asked French.
"About two weeks later, our house flooded," Beckstrom said. "The water was coming out of the downstairs bathroom out of the toilet," she added. "So it was untreated sewer water that was flooding the house."
Wading in up to four inches of water, Beckstrom called Corvais.
"They didn’t wash the carpet; they just sucked the water out. And they sucked it off the floor. They put a small fan in and then they left," she said.
Beckstrom told investigators Corvais did the same thing the next time she called them about the problem — and the next — seven times in less than two years.
"I was a young, young naïve, so incredibly naïve military wife. I thought, oh I just made this phone call, they are going to take care of it, and whatever they tell me is what we are going to be good with," she said. "Looking back now I should’ve asked, ‘Hey, are you going to sanitize it?’"
All the unasked questions were about to haunt her. Beckstrom’s son, Logan, started complaining he didn’t feel well.
"We made an appointment to bring him in, and they said it was allergies," she said.
It was a misdiagnosis that almost cost him his life. Beckstrom’s son had leukemia.
"They said, ‘Well, his blood is so thin that we’re basically waiting for his heart to stop. Statistically with his age and his size and what his levels are, his heart should’ve stopped 48 hours ago,’" she said.
Beckstrom also told Congress her daughter had been suffering from undiagnosed health issues which culminated in 2016.
"She was in a choir concert for school and she was singing," she said.
That’s when her daughter suddenly dropped to the floor and began having a seizure.
Beckstrom began to think her children’s health issues weren’t just a coincidence. She started asking questions about that chronically overflowing toilet and the untreated sewer water.
"What did you learn later that was in that water?" asked French.
"Sewer water has high levels of metal which causes epilepsy and neurological issues," Beckstrom said.
High levels of carcinogens would explain cancer. High levels of mutagens would cause birth defects.
Beckstrom does not have medically conclusive statements from doctors that identify causes for the ailments suffered by her family.
"They likened it to Flint, Michigan, that the lead in their water and the metals in their toxic water, but no doctor can go on and say that is what definitely caused your problems," she said.
But any more answers are now gone with the house which has since been torn down. For a long time, Beckstrom kept her story to herself.
"For us, personally, we were so afraid of like, retaliation, because you hear that all the time," she said.
It wasn’t until the Military Family Advisory Network conducted a survey of families, sparked by a Reuters investigation, that Beckstrom began sharing her experience.
"I typed up our experience, and I, just like a mass email, sent it out all these different addresses, and I got a call the very next morning, and then a call from the senator’s office the next morning," she said.
"What was that like when they called and asked you to go to D.C. to speak?" asked French.
"It was kinda surreal, actually," Beckstrom said.
"What do you think should happen now?" French asked.
"I pray that they put the safety and well-being first. My concern is, what are you going to do now for the long-term problems?" said Beckstrom. "My hope is, is that they’ll keep going forward with trying to make a change."
"If I can tell my story, and it makes a difference for somebody else, then I feel like I’ve done something," she added.
Corvias has since apologized, saying, "We let down our residents." Coming up Friday, see what they plan on doing from here.
We also visit another North Carolina base and see first hand what the military is doing now.
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