“They just guinea pigged him to death,” Exxon Worker’s Medical Horror Story

It is a piece of history that effectively has been buried, and it is eerily familiar to the stories of countless Deepwater Horizon response workers whose health and lives have been wrecked by exposure to oil and chemical dispersants with similar health impacts. Melissa Stubblefield has a story to tell, and it’s one that she has been unable to share since her husband Garry Stubblefield made history as one of the only Exxon Valdez oil spill workers to win his case against Exxon three decades ago. Mrs. Stubblefield is telling her husband’s story in the hopes of some healing. But she also hopes that sharing her family tragedy will give purpose to her husband’s life and death and prevent others from suffering similar fates.  

“I would love nothing more than to meet with all of you and talk with all of you because for the past 30 years I haven’t really been able to talk to anybody about it,” Mrs. Stubblefield wrote in an email to Government Accountability Project. “I wanted to write the stories, and the media, they were hounding me and wanting stories about Garry. But he was the one that just didn’t want to talk about it. It was extremely painful for him.”  

After being exposed for two months to diesel fumes, aerosolized oil, and dispersants on a barge on the Prince William Sound, Garry suffered debilitating headaches, bouts of nausea, chronic nose bleeds, coughing and gasping for air, among other symptoms. Like workers during the BP spill, after Exxon Valdez the oil company did not provide the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). He wore Carhartt work pants, a t-shirt and cotton gloves, Garry Stubblefield said in his deposition on January 13, 1992. There were no respirators aboard the barge on which Exxon supervised for as much as 80 percent of the time.  

Mrs. Stubblefield said that her husband repeatedly asked his employer during the oil spill to stop the diesel fumes from filling his control room on the barge. 

His was a distressing and painful existence – the kind that reduced a man from a rugged outdoorsman to someone who relied on dozens of medications to get through each day. It was an existence that robbed him of his health, his relationships, his memory and eventually, his life. Stubblefield, a decorated U.S. Army veteran and firearms specialist, died by suicide with the use of his own firearm in 2019.    

Before the oil spill in 1989, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, Melissa Stubblefield said. He served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971 and was a member of U.S. Army Special Forces. After serving in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne division, he saw combat, was shot in the arm and leg, and received two purple hearts and a bronze medal of honor for his bravery.  

“He suffered for 30 years and unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see the other side of the 30 years – and maybe this is the way we do that,” she said. 

AFFIDAVIT OF MELISSA STUBBLEFIELD

My name is Melissa Stubblefield. In recent years, I changed my name to Lisa Cooper. I am the widow of Garry Stubblefield.  

I met Garry in 1985. He was doing construction work and I was working on the North Slope. He was working on Prudhoe Bay but you just never knew where he was going to go next for work. He was one of the best at his job.  

Garry had done over two years in the Army from 1969 to 1972. He taught the South Vietnamese how to use weapons and defend themselves. He got shot in the arm and leg in Vietnam. He did not talk to me a lot about the war days. Veterans usually don’t; they have PTSD. In Vietnam, he learned to sleep standing with one eye open. I learned that when I woke him it was in my best interest to keep a little distance so I would poke him with a broomstick.   

Garry was from Arkansas where he was raised with a brother and two sisters. When he was 2, his mother was killed in a car accident. He was born Garry Wang Thomas, but when his mother died, the neighbor adopted all three children, and that is when he became Garry Stubblefield. 

Melissa and Garry Stubblefield at their wedding on May 27, 1989. He was called out to work on the Exxon Valdez oil spill two days later.

From the day we met we were together and we never separated. We were together for four years. And then in 1989, my parents were moving out of Alaska, and Garry and I decided to buy their house in Eagle River and get married. Before mom and dad left, we had a surprise wedding and invited all of our friends for barbecue and invited a pastor, little did they know, to seal the deal. That was May 27, 1989. Two days later, he got called out to the Exxon Valdez spill. He left and my parents left, and I was all alone. The beginning of our marriage was him going to Valdez. And the rest is history.  

Garry was in the union. When he got the call to work on the Exxon Valdez spill, they said, “Do you want this job? It is a good job, with good pay and fairly close to home.” 

Garry and his co-workers lived on the barges and they had rooms where they went to sleep because they were working 16-hour days, seven days a week. You think of the hours he was sitting in that little cab, inhaling diesel fumes.   

There were no warnings about the oil or dispersants. You can’t tell me that a company like Exxon would not know that it is dangerous to breathe in the oil. When I was working on Prudhoe Bay, they had great big pads to suck up the oil and everyone had PPE. It makes me so mad. And it was not just Garry. When you see all these men not wearing PPE, I just think, “How dare they?” From that moment forward, they were killing people. These people were never going to have the life they deserve to have.   

The diesel fumes probably caused the majority of it, but he also was exposed to that oil and dispersant overspray. Everyone that worked there was going to be sick from the oil spray itself. Most of the people that worked on the Exxon oil spill cleanup are no longer with us. They either died from sickness or commit suicide.   

From early on, Garry complained…so I think they were tired of his bullshit and they fired him.   

People told him too that the air was safe. It was my understanding that Exxon actually had some of the records that showed the actual numbers of the toxic levels, and then they would say, “Everything is fine.”  

A pack of liars – that is what they are, and it makes me sick. Those oil companies – they know the truth. They don’t want to spend the money and if they do spend the money and put out protective gear, then people will not go to work because it looks too dangerous.   

It’s a wonder that they got it cleaned up. The one person that caused the entire thing, Hazelwood, Exxon even tried to cover up all of that as well. He got hired back on with Exxon. I am not sure if they ever really fired him.” 

Photo shot by Garry Stubblefield during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

He was getting headaches back then, but it never dawned on him the damage that it was doing to his lungs, his heart, and his memory. He had to walk around with a sticky note pad to remember things. He had toxic brain poisoning, and encephalopathy. That is what made it so hard. He could not understand anything – and he was a smart man. Every conversation was an hour longer than normal because he could not get it. He had toxic brain poisoning.” 

The multiple medications doctors had Garry on made him violent and he was afraid he was going to hurt me. He would tell me over 30 years, “I will never forgive myself for what I did to you.” When he told me I had to leave, I told him, “I will not be going anywhere. I married you for better or worse.” But he made it to where I could not live with him. 

One ventilator medication in particular, Vanceril, changed him. It was one he had to give himself intravenously and that is when he decided he wasn’t going to have anyone taking care of him. That is why he eventually took his own life. 

Basically, what he said is, “I am not going to drag you down with me – so you need to leave.” I just quit my job that I absolutely loved. I had a great job, great friends, and a great life. At the time, I didn’t understand it. But as time when on, I started to understand.” 

In the following 30 years, we lived as good a life as we could live together. I had to deal with things the best I could and I had to move on. I always knew I would be there for him and I was. He would call me at night and we would talk for three hours. I remember one time that he got upset and ripped the kitchen cabinets off the wall. He had neurological damage – and coupled with the medications he was on – he could not handle stress. 

He would say, “Lissa, I owe you a big apology.” I would say, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You know those arguments where I call you a liar? They just diagnosed me with chemically induced brain damage. It has affected my memory and everything you told me was probably true. I love you so much, I did not mean to call you a liar.”  

He had no control over his body at that point. He had lost about 85 percent of his lung capacity. He had lost many of his cognitive skills. The landlord said there are yellow stickies all over the house. If we were going to have a conversation, he would get a pad of yellow stickies and I would hear him get up, gasping for air, and he would start again, “Now what was that you told me?”  

Basically, we stayed together apart. He put me in his will.   

He took so many medications, but he could not live without them. The medications were making him bleed from his rectum. A lot of times, he was embarrassed by that or the fact that he could not breathe. He liked to laugh, but you could see the veins in his neck pop out and he would gasp and gasp if he started laughing or anything.   

His memory only worsened over the years. He lived for a time with his sister in Prescott, Arizona and when he left to return to Alaska, I made him a map from Prescott, Arizona to Soldotna Alaska, marking down each turn on the route he must take corner by corner.  

Even though we lived separate lives, we still did a lot of stuff together and people did not realize that. After Garry’s death, I found a copy of our marriage license in Garry’s deposition. He still had photos of us all over his house. I don’t think he lived in the present. In one bedroom, I found a photo album opened to a page with pictures of our first date.  

It is something that the medical industry does not understand. One doctor said, “You have toxic asthma. Did you work in the coal mines? Your lungs are a mess.” That is when they started gGuinea pigging him. Then they started giving him IV medications and that is when he started to change. They would put him on a treadmill and make him breathe things that would make him start coughing. Every single doctor that he went to said you have toxic lung and brain damage. He could not do anything. It started affecting his memory and cognitive skills. Garry never worked another day in his life. They just gGuinea pigged him to death. They had no idea what they were looking for and what they were dealing with. They were giving him this drug or that drug – and thirty years later, still nothing worked.  

You should ask Garry’s attorney (Dennis) Mestas what happened to the neurologist that Garry saw in Seattle… He disappeared. We don’t know what happened to him. Garry was seeing a doctor in Anchorage, they were treating him for severe bronchitis for like nine months and then the doctor in Anchorage said, “I don’t know what I am doing. You have to go to this specialist in Seattle. (Doctor’s name) was so ridiculous. Nobody knew what was going on and that was clear up to the day Garry pulled his own trigger. No one knew what to do with his heart. I wish we had someone who would say, “I am going to find the answers.”  

You know what is really sad? He had gone to so many heart doctors, and none of them could help them, they kept sending him to other doctors. There is some paperwork here that indicates that he was scheduled for heart surgery. In 2017, he drove to Seattle to see a doctor. That same year he started shutting everyone out of his life.   

I think he found out that he was going to have to go into a VA hospital, and he wasn’t going to have it… No one could help him with his lungs. No one could help him with his brain or his memory and no one could help him with his heart. Your brain and your heart cannot function without oxygen so when he allegedly lost 85 percent of his lung capacity, it damaged his brain, his memory, and his heart.   

On September 13, 2019, Garry shot himself. Garry was a weapons specialist, a Green Beret in Vietnam. It was such a shock that he took his own life, and that is how he did it. Our whole life was about hunting and guns, for him to have taken his life. He planned it. He knew he could not get anyone to help him.  

Thirty years later, none of the medical treatments worked. That is what makes me angry the most. He never stood a chance to live the life he deserved to live whether it was with me or without me. 

Had they done their job in the beginning, Exxon could have created a path for future incidences. Had they had proper safety guidelines, provided the PPE, they could have written the book on how you do it [right]. But because of their neglect, there are thousands of people out there who are sick and who will die due to their neglect.  

I am talking to you now because I do not want his suffering to be all for naught. He suffered for 30 years and unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see the other side of the 30 years – and maybe this is the way we do that.  

I am doing this for Garry and all the people out there that have been damaged by these oil companies and their neglect. Garry could never do it for himself. I don’t want his suffrage to be in vain… He was suffering from someone else’s neglect. He should not have had to live through that kind of neglect.   

After Garry got sick, Dennis (Mestas) said Exxon will be watching you so he did not hunt. But Garry no longer had the stamina to hunt like he used to. I sold the animals because after he passed, I was trying to move on. But I still have not moved on. 

 

Melissa’s story is echoed by many other people who have been impacted by Corexit. Read more about Melissa Stubblefield’s story in our fourth BP Report about these stories and policy recommendations to delist Corexit here. 

This is an abridged version of Melissa Stubblefield’s official affidavit.