Thursday, December 5, 2013
WASHINGTON - Two weeks a year for six years, Carroll Jandreau stepped away from life in far northern Maine to dig, crawl and sleep in the dirt of a massive military training base in neighboring Canada.
Smoke hovers over a field where artillery shells just hit at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, Canada, in October 2001.
2001 Press Herald file photos by Gregory Rec
"When we would go there, they would say, 'Make sure not to bathe in the pools of water, not to drink the water and not to eat the vegetation,"' Jandreau said. "But we couldn't eat the vegetation because the leaves were all brown and crisp."
Jandreau, a member of the Maine Army National Guard, would learn decades later why the grass and shrubs covering the training grounds at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown appeared burnt.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, Canadian officials applied massive quantities of chemical herbicides and defoliants -- including a small amount of Agent Orange -- to Gagetown's fields to keep the vegetation at bay.
Now, Jandreau and a growing number of other veterans from Canada and New England suspect the cancers and other diseases they developed later in life may be linked to their time at Gagetown.
"A lot of the guys that went there and a lot of the people I knew died from kidney cancer," said Jandreau, a Fort Kent resident who has battled renal cancer, diabetes and breathing problems.
To date, the Canadian and U.S. governments have only compensated a relatively small number of people who served in 1966 or 1967, when Agent Orange was sprayed. According to both governments, there is no evidence of health risks to other veterans.
Last week marked another setback for U.S. veterans hoping to receive disability benefits for ailments they blame on Gagetown. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed with a 2007 Canadian government study that determined herbicides sprayed at the base posed no public health threat to veterans.
Members of Maine's congressional delegation responded with cautious dissatisfaction.
Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican who requested the study last year, said she was "disappointed that it does not appear that the thorough investigation the (Obama) administration promised to undertake went beyond a review of the pre-existing Canadian report." Collins said she had hoped the CDC would talk to veterans and their health care providers.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, pledged to continue pushing the U.S. Veteran's Administration "to pursue all possible options," including establishment of a voluntary "Gagetown registry" to help track and inform veterans.
"Government reports may state there was little to no risk in training at Gagetown, but I know a lot of Maine veterans strongly disagree and some continue to suffer from diseases associated with herbicide exposure," said Michaud, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "While the recent CDC report reviews the soil and the contaminants, there has not been anything that looks specifically at the veterans themselves."
Veterans seeking disability benefits face the daunting challenge of proving their lung or prostate cancer, diabetes or other ailments regularly found in the general population are definitively linked to time spent at Gagetown decades ago. Often, a definitive link is elusive.
As a result, Gagetown has spawned class-action lawsuits in Canada, congressional inquiries in the United States and conspiracy theories on both sides of the border accusing military officials of a major cover-up.
"It's scandalous," said Gary Goode of Fernie, British Columbia, a Gagetown veteran and lung cancer survivor heavily involved in the debate in Canada. The fight over chemical use at Gagetown is exponentially louder in Canada than in the United States due to the estimated 300,000 Canadian veterans who trained or were stationed at the base.
"I know the Canadian government has said that they did an independent study, but there was nothing independent about it at all," Goode said of the 2007 study recently evaluated by the CDC.
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A Maine Army National Guard helicopter approaches the base.
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Maine Army National Guardsmen of Alpha Battery of the 1st Battalion, 152nd Field Artillery, load a round into a howitzer during training. Military veterans are concerned about exposure to defoliants and herbicides at the site.