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 kmiller@pressherald.com
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

Additional Photos Below

One of the leaders of the 152nd during Antworth's time, retired Staff Sgt. Hazen Murchison of Castle Hill, also battled prostate cancer, diabetes and neuropathy. But unlike Antworth, he spent 18 months in areas of Vietnam and therefore qualifies for VA disability benefits from potential Agent Orange exposure.

Asked whether he believes Vietnam or Gagetown led to his health problems, Murchison replied: "Myself, I think it's both."

Jandreau, the Aroostook County veteran, was told he wasn't a veteran and therefore does not qualify for VA benefits because he served in the National Guard rather than the "regular Army" and was never sent to Vietnam or other active duty assignments. The entire experience has left him frustrated and angry.

"Being told I'm not a veteran after all those years I spent in the National Guard." Jandreau said, his voice brimming with bitterness.

DOUBTS AND DENIAL LETTERS

In many ways, Jandreau's and Antworth's experiences illustrate not only the challenges facing VA personnel as they review disability claims, but also the frustrations of veterans hoping for assistance as they battle life-threatening diseases.

Prostate cancer, lung cancer, diabetes and less common disorders such as Hodgkin's and Parkinson's diseases can be caused by environmental exposure, lifestyle choices, genetics and a host of other factors both known and unknown.

So unless a veteran suffers from a rare form of cancer clearly linked to exposure to a specific chemical, there will always be questions about the disease's cause. And those doubts often result in denial letters.

Under the 2007 Canadian government study recently affirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a research team took more than 350 samples of soil, sediment, water and vegetation for testing for lingering chemical contamination.

Although samples taken from the specific areas where Agent Orange was sprayed showed elevated levels, the Canadian report concluded that health risks were low for anyone training in those areas one year after the application. Likewise, the Canadian study predicted no excessive cancer risks for veterans.

"The concentrations of contaminants at CFB Gagetown do not represent a public health hazard now or in the past to members of the U.S. military/National Guard who trained at this Canadian base or to recreational users who access the site now," the CDC concluded in its report to Collins.

But Richard Pelletier says the proof is in the "clusters" of former National Guard servicemen suffering from similar forms of cancer or other ailments.

A former Maine National Guard member from Madawaska, Pelletier trained at Gagetown but has, to date, not suffered any health problems. He is, however, arguably the most vocal voice in the United States on the Gagetown issue.

For the past seven years, Pelletier has been on a crusade to win VA benefits for veterans in Maine and elsewhere in New England who believe their illnesses could be tied to time spent training at Gagetown. His tenacity and brash style have won him respect from veterans but also caused tensions with those on the other end of his stinging criticisms.

He has accused top officials within the Maine National Guard and the state Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management of siding with the VA rather than veterans on the issue. And he has repeatedly used social media to berate members of Maine's congressional delegation for what he saw as inaction on the issue.

Although initially pleased that the CDC had agreed to conduct a study, Pelletier was fuming last week after the results were released. He called for an independent review.

"We are continuing to file claims here for people exposed to Agent Orange," Pelletier said.

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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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