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

(Continued from page 3)

click image to enlarge

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

BURDEN OF PROOF ON VETERANS

Despite Pelletier's frustrations with Maine officials, documents show that representatives within the Maine Bureau of Veterans Service and the National Guard were concerned about veterans' exposure to herbicides and defoliants beyond Agent Orange.

In an April 2006 "information paper" made available to veterans, the office of Maine Bureau of Veterans Services director Ogden acknowledged that veterans were concerned about the "bigger issue" of exposure to 40 different types of herbicides used at Gagetown.

The fact that the other chemicals were registered, legal herbicides does not negate the risk of exposure due to the nature of military training, the paper's authors wrote.

"Maine National Guard soldiers dug foxholes, low crawled, slept in pup tents, and lived in some of these areas for up to 12 days at a time," the paper said. "Guard engineers graded roads where herbicides were used to keep brush growth down on the edge of the road; cleared brush out of and constructed bivouac sites; and conducted demolition and engineer missions all over CFB Gagetown. Artillerymen fired thousands of rounds into the impact areas and the detonation of those rounds put those chemicals back into the air to be dispersed wherever the wind took them."

But an update in September 2007 -- one month after the Canadian health risks study was released -- merely offers veterans guidance on how to submit claims if they were exposed specifically to Agent Orange while serving outside of Vietnam. There is no reference to other herbicides.

Ogden said the reality is that Congress and the VA set the parameters for reviewing disability claims. And right now those rules state that, with the exception of Agent Orange, veterans who suspect they were exposed to harmful herbicides must prove that connection.

"I have been actively working with the senator's office and the congressman's office and the VA to resolve this issue at the state level," Ogden said last year. "I'm very frustrated with the process, too, because it is so slow to get any resolution."

NEVER BOTHERED TO APPEAL

Peter Furrow, a Dixmont resident who trained twice with the Guard at the base he remembers as dusty and brown "like a gravel pit," is among those frustrated with the process.

Furrow had to have a cancerous tumor on his eye surgically removed about three years ago. He also suffers from nerve problems in his hands and feet.

Furrow didn't give the origins of his cancer much thought until he talked with other Maine veterans riding a VA shuttle bus for treatment in Massachusetts. A handful also battling cancer mentioned their suspicions about Gagetown.

Furrow filed a claim with the VA and, last August, received a response. The VA said it may consider his claim -- but first the department needs additional scientific or medical evidence showing a link between his "squamous cell carcinoma" and exposure to dioxins in herbicides. Furrow said last week he never bothered to appeal because he "just knew it was going to be declined."

"You get tired of trying to fight it," he said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

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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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