By Mike Hixenbaugh
Fort Bragg officials say they have found no direct links between 10 unexplained infant deaths that have occurred in base housing units the past few years.
There were no indications of foul play in any of the cases, military investigators said, but they are continuing to search for common environmental factors that might explain the string of deaths. All of the infant fatalities have occurred since 2007.
The formal investigation began earlier this summer, when base officials learned that two babies had died three months apart after living at different times in the same home, said Brig. Gen. Michael Garrett, chief of staff of the 18th Airborne Corps.
A third child who had lived in the same house died suddenly and without explanation two years earlier.
"What got my attention is that we had multiple deaths associated with one set of quarters," Garrett said. "That is really the focus of our investigation."
Military pathologists listed the cause of death in seven of the cases as "undetermined." One was labeled sudden infant death syndrome, and two are still under investigation, officials said.
The Army Criminal Investigative Command has so far found no common factors among the deaths, said Chris Grey, a spokesman with the CID.
John Shay, program manager for Picerne Military Housing, said all the base homes managed by the private firm "are held to the same high standard." He said repeated tests have shown no evidence of toxic mold or faulty drywall at the houses in question.
Grey and Shay declined to detail where the infant deaths have occurred on post.
"At this point, we don't have any concrete information or evidence that any of these deaths are linked in any manor whatsoever, so we're not going to alarm the public by putting out specific neighborhoods," Grey said.
Other Fort Bragg-based agencies are assisting in the investigation, Grey said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that monitors the quality of building materials, also is looking into the matter, a spokesman with the agency said.
Until those investigations are complete, Bragg officials said there is no need for soldiers or their families to worry.
"My sense is that our housing is world-class, and we know that," Garrett said. "We do things to a very, very high standard to ensure our soldiers and their families have the absolute best quarters that we can provide."
Garrett said the military is conducting a "full spectrum of environmental testing" to determine what can be done to prevent any other deaths on post. Investigators have tested drywall, airflow and carbon monoxide levels at each of the homes where infants have died, officials said.
That's of little comfort to Staff Sgt. Tavares Pollard and his wife, Melissa.
Jamie Hernan, the couple's lawyer, said the Pollards were heartbroken in April 2009 when their 2-month-old son, Jay'vair, died suddenly at their home in the Ardennes neighborhood on post.
Less than three months later, the couple's 7-month-old niece died under similar circumstances during an extended stay at the home, Hernan said.
It's the same military housing unit where another family was living when their baby died unexpectedly at an off-post day care center in February 2007, investigators said.
"That's three cases tied to one home," Hernan said. "There's too much in common between them for there not to be a link."
Picerne finished construction on the Ardennes neighborhood in 2005, a company official said.
Military investigators have refused to release environmental test results taken at the home and at other base housing units, Hernan said. He said the Pollards, who have since moved to another home, are tired of waiting for answers.
Hernan is representing at least one other family that lost a child on post.
"Primarily, they want to know what happened to their children," Hernan said. "They're also concerned that what caused the death of their children might still be present in base housing and other children might be at risk."
Paris Mayo has the same fear, she said. Mayo's 3-month-old daughter died unexpectedly in September 2008 while living in the Casablanca neighborhood on post.
Mayo and her husband, Spc. Kasi Mayo, still live in the community, and now they fear their newborn son might be at risk.
"Nobody has told me anything," Paris Mayo said. "I just want to make sure my baby is safe."
About 18,000 people live in roughly 6,200 houses on Fort Bragg, officials said.
Officials were unable to provide an official estimate of how many infants were born into military housing units each of the past four years, making it impossible to calculate the rate of unexpected infant deaths on post.
About 1 in 1,100 infants born in North Carolina died of sudden infant death syndrome in 2007 and 2008, according to the latest figures from the state Center for Health Statistics.
Col. Jeffrey Kingsbury, chief of preventative medicine at Womack Army Medical Center, said he suspects the rate on Fort Bragg is probably in line with the rest of the country. He called the string of infant deaths a "teachable moment" and suggested safety measures to help prevent unexpected infant deaths.
Kingsbury said parents should never leave babies to sleep on their stomachs and cautioned against exposing infants to secondhand smoke.
"There are things that can be done to help prevent these tragedies from happening," he said. "This is an opportunity to get the information out there."