VA acknowledges connection between veteran's illness, Marine base chemicals
By MARTHA SHANAHAN | The Keene Sentinel, N.H. (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 30, 2015
More than three decades after coming into contact with 100 barrels of a mysterious substance on a Marine Corps base in Japan, a Keene city councilor and state representative finally has some closure.
In 1981, Kris E. Roberts was a facilities maintenance officer at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan.
As a first lieutenant in charge of maintaining the base with 50 Okinawans and the 35 U.S. soldiers working under him, Roberts was assigned to look into some unusually high chemical readings in the water coming off the base.
He and his men did some digging, and found barrels of a substance that Roberts thinks was Agent Orange, one of the herbicides used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to kill the foliage that North Vietnamese troops used for cover.
More than 100 barrels lay neatly in the ground, rusty and leaking fluid, Roberts said.
“We dug, and it was more and more and more,” he said.
Now Roberts, a candidate for mayor in Keene, is the first veteran the U.S. government has acknowledged came into contact with hazardous chemicals on Futenma, he said Wednesday.
In a ruling this month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ appeals board told Roberts that the prostate cancer he was diagnosed with in 2006 was due to “exposure to hazardous chemicals.”
Roberts, now 61, said he experienced several medical issues, including strokes and blackouts, when he returned from Okinawa.
”Things just weren’t working,” he said. “I was was passing out ... and I had no idea what was causing it.”
He and his men had moved the barrels onto trucks that were taken off the island, then submerged themselves in water at the site where the barrels had been after a typhoon flooded the area.
Roberts thought nothing at the time of the potential health effects of interacting with the barrels, which he said had rust that was the reddish-orange color of Agent Orange. ”In 1981, Agent Orange was really no big deal,” he said. “We weren’t working in any protective gear.”
Based on photographs of the barrels and a doctor’s report that Roberts’ prostate cancer may have been caused by exposure to chemicals, the Veterans Appeals Board said in a letter to Roberts this month that “the benefit of the doubt has been given in your favor.”
“We have conceded your exposure to hazardous chemicals and granted service for prostate cancer,” the letter says, which means there could be a connection between the two, Roberts said.
The letter denies that the chemical in the barrels was Agent Orange.
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not return a request for comment from The Sentinel, but in a statement sent to National Public Radio, U.S. Forces Japan said they did not have evidence that the material Roberts and his men saw was Agent Orange.
“The Department of Defense remains committed to working closely with the Government of Japan on this issue,” the statement said. “If in the future we discover any evidence that Herbicide Orange was ever stored on, used in, or transported through Okinawa, we will be sure to share it with the Government of Japan without delay and take appropriate action.”
Other veterans who served at Futenma have claimed to have medical problems due to moving the barrels, Roberts said.
Roberts won’t get any monetary compensation from the VA — he has already “maxed out” on his benefits from other injuries and illnesses.
But it’s not about the money, he said. “He hopes the ruling will lead to other veterans getting recognition and compensation for the time they spent in Okinawa.
“I think more people will come forward,” he said.
Roberts also hopes that if the material in the barrels was Agent Orange, as he suspects, that the U.S. government tell Japan and the citizens of Okinawa that the site may be contaminated.
“The big thing is spreading the word,” he said.
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