June 16, 2006

When Wars Hit Home

When wars hit home: Victims of agent orange are still fighting today

After spending more than six years being exposed to agent orange at CFB Gagetown, Art Connolly took little comfort from the latest report on the spraying released by the government funded Base Gagetown and Area Fact Finders Mission, in early June.

"The report - the whole fact-finding mission- is a joke, part of the DND (Department of National Defense) dog and pony show," said Connolly who lost his seven-year-old brother to Reyes Syndrome and his 27-year-old pregnant sister Patty to a blood clot in the lungs - early deaths he blames on the chemicals sprayed while his family lived on the base.

Toxic dioxin-based defoliants from the rainbow group of chemicals, including agent orange, gained infamy during the Vietnam war, where United States military planes dumped more than 11 million gallons to scorch the trees, crops and foliage protecting communist resistance fighters.

Between 1956-1984 the Canadian military sprayed 6,504 barrels (1,328,767 litres) of chemical defoliants on 181,038 acres (an acre is slightly smaller than a football field) of Base Gagetown including agent orange, agent white and the extremely toxic agent purple, according to a 1985 declassified legislative briefing accessible to [here] through access to information.

The June 1st report, from tasks 2A and 2B of the fact-finding mission, included the testing of 296 soil samples and re-confirmed the fears of thousands of former soldiers, civilians, families and contract personnel who lived on and around base Gagetown. Levels of Dioxin, a toxin found in agent orange and linked to cancer and a diverse array of ailments, are more than ten times acceptable limits on parts of the base.

"Every time they open a file, they just verify what we said, so I guess in a sense the whole project makes us look good," said Connolly a self-described military brat, who as vicepresident of the Agent Orange Association of Canada, isn't happy with the whole process.

The fact-finding mission, led by Dr. Dennis Furlong, can't make recommendations to government.

"The whole mission is still under very much under the control of DND (the organization responsible for much of the spraying)," said Ken Dobbie, president of the Agent Orange Association, who wants a full-public inquiry into the spraying and compensation for all people affected.

"In any criminal investigation, you don't have the criminal investigating themselves.

That's contrary to most principles of criminal justice," said Dobbie who is sick with brain atrophy, neurological disorders, thyroid growths, toxic hepatitis, and type 2 diabetes he blames on the time he spent on the base: living there as a child and working as a student in 1966 cutting agent orange soaked brush. "These diseases don't run in my family, there is no genetic history on either side," he said.

Agent Orange survivors like Dobbie and Connolly had high hopes for the newly elected Conservative government and its New Brunswick MPs.

"When [Gordon] O'Connor and [Greg] Thompson made cabinet, we were rubbing our hands together thinking these are our guys," said Dobbie.

When Greg Thompson was Conservative defense critic just last year he stood up in the House of Commons and demanded a full public inquiry into the spraying of defoliants at the base, "...he was voraciously opposing the liberal position and has done a complete flip-flop since being elected," said Dobbie. Thompson is no longer demanding a full public inquiry.

Attempting to champion military issues, "Stephen Harper had said all sprayers back to the 50s would be compensated. They've changed their tune and now they are just taking about 1966-67," said Dobbie who is lead plaintiff in class-action lawsuit which more than 1,000 spray victims have launched against the government.

As military matters and war again dominate the nation's headlines, disasters like the Gagetown spraying will invariably be re-incarnated.

Perhaps next time the damage will be caused by Depleted Uranium (DU) or a new variety of bunker-buster bomb designed to blast Afghan caves? The business of war doesn't just leave its ghastly card in far off places, whether we like it or not, on CFB Gagetown and beyond, all wars eventually come home.

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