Registry would gather info on US vets exposed to toxins at Canadian base

By JULIA BAYLY | Bangor Daily News, Maine | Published: March 31, 2013

FORT KENT, Maine — For decades members of the Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island National Guard and reserves trained at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, about 100 miles east of the Maine border.

In 2007 the Canadian government admitted to working with the United States military in testing the herbicides Agent Orange, Agent Purple, Agent White and other unregistered pesticides at locations around the base in the late 1960s and began paying one-time settlements to its own veterans who served on the base.

Last week Rep. Mike Michaud, ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, reintroduced a bill to help Maine veterans who trained at Gagetown after the testing period and may be concerned they were exposed to toxic levels of the herbicides.

To date, according to Michaud’s office, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not have comprehensive data on veterans looking for compensation based on chemical exposure at Gagetown.

Michaud’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree, would “establish a voluntary CFB Gagetown registry containing the names of veterans who apply for care or services from the VA based on a condition linked to their time at CFB Gagetown. The legislation would also provide a health exam to these veterans at their request. A registry would allow these veterans to officially list their possibly service-connected illnesses and increase opportunities for outreach and research,” according to a release from his office.

“No veteran should be denied the care they have earned. It’s extremely frustrating that the VA doesn’t track these concerns,” said Michaud. “This is not a new issue, and the VA must improve its ability to reach out to veterans who may face special challenges in establishing service-connection. A registry will provide us more information to get a better handle on the full scope of the problem, and I believe it’s a critical first step toward helping these veterans get the care they need.”

Establishing the registry is a good first step on the way to gaining full compensation for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals, according to Richard Pelletier, a former United States Marine and National Guardsman who advocates for veterans as a service officer with the American Legion in Maine.

Use of toxic herbicides at Gagetown, Pelletier said, was not limited to two years in the 1960s and instead included spraying of toxic herbicides Agents Orange, White and Purple from 1956 to 1984 by the Canadians.

U.S. troops taking part in training exercises at Gagetown since 1971 were never made aware of the continued use of the chemicals on base or the possibility of exposure, he said.

“We know the United States government sprayed 83 acres [with Agent Orange] in 1966 and 1967,” Pelletier said. “But the Canadians continued spraying until 1984 and our guys were exposed to that.”

In 2005 a health registry was established and opened up to U.S. veterans who were at Gagetown in 1966 and 1967 and suspect they were exposed to the chemicals, but Pelletier said the registry needs to be opened to all veterans who served up to the present.

Michaud’s bill, he said, will do that.

“This is an issue we have been hearing about for far too many years without any action,” Ed Gilman, spokesman with Michaud’s office, said last week. “It’s a good first step.”

Robert Owen, Maine American Legion department service officer, agrees.

“We fully support it,” he said last week. “Too many of our vets out there who trained at Gagetown are getting things like cancer and diabetes [and] those are all presumptive illnesses that showed up in vets who served in Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange.”

While not providing immediate relief or compensation to those Gagetown veterans, a health registry, Owen said, will establish a firm database of those veterans and let the U.S. government see the scope of the need for follow-up care and compensation.

“This is a major start,” he said. “Very little has been done over the years [and] a registry will open things up and make people aware.”

Sen. Susan Collins met recently with U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and requested his agency undertake a study of possible effects of toxic chemical exposure to veterans who had trained at Gagetown.

“I request that you commission an independent study to examine potential health risks to veterans, including Maine National Guardsmen, who may have been exposed to harmful toxins while training at CFB Gagetown,” Collins said in a March 29 letter to Shinseki. “Such a study should be carried out by an independent organization with expertise in the conduct of similar studies. I further request that the Department consult with Maine veterans who served at CFB Gagetown in carrying out this request.”

Collins also urged Shinseki to establish a registry within his department for those veterans.

“This is our chance to start this process here in Maine,” Peter Ogden, director of the bureau for veterans services in Maine, said. “Our goal is to start gathering this information now so whenever the VA does decide [to compensate veterans] it will have the necessary information.”

That information, he said, will allow the Veterans’ Administration to better track exposed servicemen and woman establish health trends.

“We had started a registry and list like that awhile back,” Ogden said. “But we did not ask enough questions so now we want to know where they served [at Gagetown], what unit they were with and what medical issues they have now.”

At the same time, Ogden said, his office will work with veterans to assure they have the most up-to-date information on the Gagetown chemical exposure situation.

Owen and Pelletier are hoping that information will prompt the U.S. government to begin compensating veterans much like the Canadian government has already done for its troops stationed at Gagetown.

Starting in 2007 and up through 2011, Veterans Affairs Canada awarded one-time payments to 5,000 of those veterans totalling $100 million, according to Janice Summerby, veterans affairs spokesperson.

“We would like to see the VA accept that the people who were in Gagetown do have health issues and should be compensated,” Owen said. “That is really the bottom line.”