March 16, 2013

Maine Army Guard troops haunted by Agent Orange

Soldiers who trained at a Canadian base blame their lasting health problems on exposure to herbicides.

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

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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

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Located in the town of Oromocto near the provincial capital of Fredericton, Gagetown is the second-largest military base in Canada and the third-largest employer in New Brunswick. Hundreds of thousands of Canadian troops and thousands of Americans spent time at the 250,000-acre base.

Both the Canadian and U.S. governments acknowledge that some veterans who trained at or were stationed at Gagetown were potentially exposed to Agent Orange.

Over a span of seven days in 1966 and 1967, the U.S. military used helicopters to spray several barrels on 166 plots to test the defoliant before deploying it in the jungles of Vietnam. Agent Orange, which contains dioxin, has since been linked to cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, birth defects in offspring and a host of other health problems.

In response to growing pressure and lawsuits, Canada offered sickened veterans who served on the base at the time or civilians living nearby a $20,000 lump-sum settlement. The small number of U.S. veterans who spent time at Gagetown in 1966-67 and subsequently developed specific health problems are eligible for the same types of coverage or benefits offered to veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and Korea.

"There were no Maine National Guard troops at the base during these testing periods," Meagan Lutz, a spokeswoman for the VA, said in a written response to questions from the Maine Sunday Telegram. "Records do show that commercially available herbicides have been used for weed and brush control at the base."

Veterans contend that those other herbicides have created a toxic legacy at Gagetown that began years before 1966 and lasted for decades.

Military documents obtained by Goode and other Canadian veterans through Freedom of Information requests show that more than 3 million pounds of other herbicides and defoliants -- some chemically similar to Agent Orange -- were used at Gagetown during a 30-year period.

Goode said only three dozen of the more than 3,000 Canadian veterans who have applied were granted disability benefits as of his last count. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, has denied more than 100 claims from Maine, according to Collins' office.

"So far they have all been denied because they don't meet the criteria within the law," Peter Ogden, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, said in an interview last year. The bureau assists some veterans in the appeals to the VA. "And I know that is frustrating for the veterans."

Chuck Antworth, who is from the Bangor area, is one of those Maine National Guard veterans who received a denial letter from the VA. He is awaiting news on his appeal but is not optimistic.

A member of the Maine National Guard from 1981 to 1987, Antworth trained at Gagetown every year except one with the 152nd Field Artillery unit. The 49-year-old suffers from kidney failure, diabetes, problems with his prostate and thyroid as well as neuropathy in his arms and legs. And he says others from his unit have faced similar health problems.

Some of those ailments would qualify as "presumptive diseases" for Vietnam vets or any others who can document potential exposure to Agent Orange. Unfortunately, they are also relatively common in the general public.

As a radio operator, Antworth said he was often positioned on the ground right next to the artillery. And every time one of those big guns let loose, the reverberations would kick up a cloud of dust that Antworth is convinced contained the seeds of his illnesses.

"There were never any leaves on any of the trees at all," Antworth said. "It looked like a forest fire went through there."

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Additional Photos

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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.


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