Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have proposed legislation that would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate whether some veterans’ health problems are linked to a Canadian military base that was treated with the toxic herbicide Agent Orange.
Veterans who trained at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in Oromocto, New Brunswick, have long tried to get the federal government to acknowledge that their health problems, including cancer and Parkinson’s disease, could be linked to chemical exposure.
Some who served in 1966 or 1967 have been compensated by either the Canadian or U.S. governments, but the number is small. An undetermined number of Maine veterans have sought compensation or medical help with some of the illnesses they claim stem from their training at Gagetown.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, fields at the base, which specializes in heavy artillery training, were sprayed with massive quantities of chemical herbicides and defoliants, including a small amount of Agent Orange, to control the vegetation. That means the number of veterans exposed at Gagetown could be significant.
“Protecting the health of those who have served our nation is a solemn responsibility,” Collins said in a prepared statement.
Collins said she raised the issue with Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Just as the government of Canada found a way to offer compensation to service members exposed to toxic herbicides at Gagetown, the VA should likewise be able to find a way to recognize the similar concerns voiced by Maine veterans,” Collins said.
CALLS FOR AN INDEPENDENT STUDY
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study last year, at Collins’ request, that concluded that the herbicides sprayed at Gagetown posed no public health threat. King and Collins, however, contend that the study relied exclusively on previous Canadian studies and included no new research or interviews with veterans who trained at the base.
Now, they want an independent study, which would examine links between veterans who trained at Gagetown and diseases they have developed that may be associated with exposure to Agent Orange.
“Through their service, our veterans have demonstrated an unyielding commitment to our nation, and in return, our country has a duty to protect their health and well-being,” King said in a prepared statement. “I am hopeful that this piece of legislation will bring us a step closer to providing more robust answers for Maine’s veterans who served at Gagetown.”
In addition to ordering the study, the bill would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a registry of all veterans who trained at Gagetown.
The registry would give veterans a mechanism to make claims to the VA and help to establish how widespread the exposure might be. But proving that health problems were caused by exposure is difficult.
The CDC agreed with a 2007 Canadian government study that determined that herbicides sprayed at the base posed no health threat to veterans.
Since then, Gagetown has spawned a class-action lawsuit in Canada, congressional inquiries in the United States and conspiracy theories accusing military officials of a cover-up.
â€˜WE HAVE BEEN WAITING AND WAITING’
Over a span of seven days in 1966 and 1967, the U.S. military used helicopters to spray several barrels of Agent Orange on 166 plots at Gagetown to test the defoliant before using it in the jungles of Vietnam.
Canada offered sick veterans and civilians who worked at the base a $20,000 lump-sum settlement.
The VA has gone on record as saying there were no Maine National Guard troops training at Gagetown during the Agent Orange testing periods.
“If they are going to look into this problem, then that’s fine. They need to do something because we have been waiting and waiting,” said Carroll Jandreau of Fort Kent, a former member of the Maine Army National Guard who trained at Gagetown for two weeks a year over a period of six years in the 1960s.
“They told us not to drink the water when we were there, and all the leaves on the trees were either dried up or dead. The tree limbs looked like they were covered with a white powder,” he said.
Jandreau, 62, had his left kidney removed in 2004 after he was diagnosed with renal cancer. He suffers from pulmonary hypertension, which has affected his breathing, and he has been on 24-hour oxygen care.
When Jandreau filed a claim with the VA seeking health care benefits for the conditions he contends were brought on by training at Gagetown, he was told that he did not qualify.
His identical twin brother, Darrill, trained at the Canadian base during the same period but does not suffer from any severe medical issues. Jandreau said he supports the legislation proposed by Collins and King but doesn’t trust the government or the military to do what is right for veterans.
“I feel they are waiting for all of us to pass away so they don’t have to do anything about it,” he said.
A HERMON VETERAN’S EXPERIENCE
Maine Army National Guard veteran Chuck Antworth of Hermon is 49 and suffers from kidney failure — he is about to begin dialysis. He also is being treated for diabetes, and struggles with prostate and thyroid problems.
“They need to keep going. I’d like to see some justice done,” Antworth said Thursday night after being told about the legislation that Collins and King have proposed.
Antworth trained at Gagetown for two weeks each year from 1981 to 1987. He believes that his health problems stem from his time there. He filed a claim 18 months ago and said the VA has not responded.
Antworth, who was a radio operator, has vivid memories of Gagetown. He said it looked like a forest fire had swept through the base.
He said he feels empty after learning of all the military personnel who trained at Gagetown and the medical problems they have developed.
“They used us as guinea pigs. I’d rather go into combat and die, rather than have to go through this slow and difficult process,” he said.
Antworth said he has no regrets about serving his country, but he does regret how the government has responded to his and others’ claims.
“They turned their backs on us,” he said.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @PPHEricRussell