Politics

December 27, 2013

Collins, King seek study of Agent Orange link to ill veterans

They want to know if Mainers and others who trained at a base in Canada were affected by the toxic defoliant there.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

A Maine Army National Guard helicopter flies over Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick.

2001 Press Herald file photo/Gregory Rec

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.

‘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.

(Continued on page 2)

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