Former airman Gary Coll can’t walk without the aid of a stick. He wakes up in pain each morning and suffers from a slow heart rate, memory loss, severe anxiety, and chronic fatigue — which he blames on having been exposed to dangerous chemicals while serving in the Air Corps over 20 years ago.
Registered disabled at the age of 35, Coll says he has suffered a litany of health problems over the years as a result, including stomach ulcers and bowel, thermo-regulation, and urinary issues.
But the retired avionics technician from Co Donegal — who used to run 10k in 30 minutes, rowed at Henley Royal Regatta, and played rugby for Barnhall — is one of the lucky ones. He’s still here.
It is claimed two more former employees who may have also suffered severe health implications due to cancer-causing chemicals have died prematurely in the last week, bringing the number of deaths in the past month to four.
Last week it was claimed the total number of former colleagues who have died possibly as a result of being exposed to airborne chemicals now exceeds 90.
“When I was 21, I was thrown into a tub of chemicals by my Air Corps colleagues,” Coll explained.
“Tubbing, as we called it, was when you were busy doing your job and all of a sudden there were 10 people standing behind you. They’d have strapped you to a stretcher or a pallet, carried you over to a tub where all the chemicals and oils were dumped, and they’d throw you in.”
Most of the time employees like Coll, who is now 47, had their bodies immersed in oily water as part of the prank, not even contemplating if this could trigger an autoimmune response in later life.
“Within a week of being tubbed I lost all the pigmentation in the right-hand side of my body and all the hairs on my chest, my leg and my arm went white. That happened overnight.”
He went to see the airbase doctor, who allegedly opened a drawer in his office desk, looked in, then looked back at Coll and said: “Sorry, no ginger legs left.”
Yet Coll still didn’t realise there was anything wrong.
“We worked with those chemicals all the time. When someone tells you to go and get a bucket or a cup or cap full of oil you ran and got it. Then they said to wipe it down and it would take off the grease. You did that with your bare hands.
“There was no mask, no rubber gloves, no aprons handed out. You never thought it was dangerous if it spilled onto your clothes.”
In the early 2000s, Coll started developing a tremor in his arm “like pins and needles”, and after joining Facebook he decided to connect with some of his former colleagues.
“I started looking up people I remembered. But then when I got talking to them I realised that many of our ex-colleagues were feeling the same as me.
“We’d be talking about people and all you would hear was ‘that boy is sick’ or ‘this boy is dead’. It was terribly upsetting,” he said.
He believes it is only a matter of time before he becomes another Air Corps statistic.
“For the last 10 years it’s like every day I get up I am playing Russian roulette. Is the bowel OK today? Is today the day I find a lump? The day I pee blood? Is today the day something bad happens? Will I go through tomorrow without anything happening?
“I know the same thing will happen to me someday — and it’s a horrible thing to think, but every day I worry that this might be the day I realise it’s all over.”
He feels let down by the Government, let by politicians who had previously vowed to help, but let down most of all by the Irish Defence Forces, describing the organisation as being “shiny on the outside, no matter how rotten it is on the inside”.
“Lipstick on a pig is what the army is, and it’s about time they all took the problem seriously and looked into why so many of us are suffering and dying,” said Coll.
For 22 years, Dubliner Pat Reilly served in the Air Corps — first working in the engine shop then as an airborne photographer — but like many others, his recollections of those days are clouded by painful memories.
“I was bullied for being a Dub. They used to cover me in oil and grease. I remember getting thrown into a huge steel bath with rancid oily water and dead wood floating in it, while I was in my uniform.
“On another occasion, I was in charge of putting oil in heaters. I was followed to a fuel shed and suddenly my colleagues sprayed me from head to toe in jet fuel. The other lad lit a zippo lighter and lit it in front of me. Instantly my eyes were burning, and my lungs were burning.”
In the years that followed, Reilly began noticing his own health issues — such as problems with his bowels, his heart swelling up, and he developed a tremor in his thigh muscles.
“I remember a doctor saying: ‘There is nothing wrong with this lad, it’s all in his head.’ But that’s how we have all been treated over the years,” said Reilly.
Now living in Australia with his family, he says he has “started coming to terms with things”.
“My life is over. I’m one of the walking dead. I’m unemployable, the banks won’t touch us, we are circling around the hole financially. We can’t even go home to Ireland because we can’t afford it.
“Part of the reason I came to Australia was to run away from it. When you become aircrew, safety is number one, but so is honesty. I feel let down and I’m very angry,” he said.
A Defence Forces spokesperson said last week that they would not be commenting due to ongoing legal action.