The first meeting of The Gagetown Harmful Chemical Study Commission met for the first time on Wednesday in Augusta. Pictured from left to right: Diane Ghering, wife of commission member Jim Ghering; Elaine Donovan, wife of commission member David Donovan; Jan McColm of Halifax; Dana Michaud of Presque Isle; Rep. Mark Babin, R-Fort Fairfield; President Jackson; Rep. Ron Russell, D-Verona Island; Don Page of Fort Fairfield; David Donovan of Fort Fairfield; and Jim Gehring of Bridgewater. Credit: Courtesy of Sen. Troy Jackson's office

Several members of a state commission charged with studying the effects of harmful chemicals on members of the Maine National Guard who trained at a Canadian military base said they saw large dead animals, dead foliage and yellow-colored water while training there.

Commission member Dave Donovan served 12 years in the Maine Army National Guard and went to the Gagetown, New Brunswick military support base in Canada seven times, the first in the early 1970s, he said.

“I ended up with prostate cancer which was extensive, shortly after that a large melanoma patch on my back developed, possibly from Gagetown,” he said during the commission’s first meeting in Augusta this week. “I hope our endeavor will relieve some suffering.”

For nearly 50 years, the U.S. Army National Guard, especially reservists from Maine and Massachusetts, have trained for combat several weeks each year at Gagetown. But for those reservists, now in their 70s, who trained in the early 1970s and 1980s, it was particularly dangerous. They were training on land that had been sprayed with herbicides later  associated with certain cancers and other diseases. The US Army continues to train at Gagetown, according to the US Department of Defense.

Several commission members detailed their own serious illnesses and unexplained deaths of fellow reservists after time spent at Gagetown. Some members said the effects are still showing up today.

The Gagetown Harmful Chemical Study Commission will tackle what has been mostly ignored for two decades, despite hundreds of guardsmen and women claiming devastating illness from repeated exposure to chemicals at the Canadian base. The commission was established  under a new law, LD 1597, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Commission member Jim Gehring of Bridgewater said that since 2005, Maine veterans have been trying to file medical and disability claims for illnesses like cancer from exposure to defoliants Agent Orange, Agent Purple and Agent White while training at the Canadian base. But these attempts have been unsuccessful.

“The frustrating part, there never was an avenue for the veterans in Maine, for the guard to file a claim,” Gehring said during the commission’s first meeting on Wednesday. “We were told ‘just don’t bother you will be denied.’”

Gary Goode, who in 2009 helped organize a protest rally demanding an official inquiry into the defoliant spraying at the Canadian military base, CFB Gagetown. Goode, along with about 30 other protesters, marched to the St. Stephen, New Brunswick, office of Greg Thompson, the federal Minister of Veteran’s Affairs in Canada. Credit: Diana Graettinger / BDN

Gehring, who helped process claims through the Aroostook Veterans Alliance, stopped counting claims at 950, he said.

David Richmond, director of Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services, said national guard personnel are eligible to file health or disability claims to the bureau. They will have to present credible evidence about when they were at Gagetown, if they were in the area of chemical spraying during the time it was applied, he said during the meeting.

One woman, a wife of a reservist, said that they have filed a claim and have appealed the rejection seven times.

In 1966 and 1967, various defoliants, including Agent Orange, Agent Purple, and Agent White were sprayed on an 83-acre forest on the base, where the guard trained, often in tents, and slept on the ground, according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control report spurred by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

At the time, CDC researchers along with Canadian scientists concluded that there was not a high enough concentration to cause a public health threat. Since then, significant studies have  validated the effects of Agent Orange on people and the U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs now maintains an Agent Orange registry and medical treatment and disability compensation to veterans exposed.

“In terms of harmful chemicals, and their effects on servicemen and women, I am never going to just take reports at face value,” Jackson said. “There are far too many men and women that I’ve spoken to in my district that feel strongly that they were negatively affected by their service at Gagetown, and we have to do whatever we can to make things right for them.”

Following Jackson’s work related to legislation to keep the Caribou Veterans’ Home open, Jackson said he heard from a number of former guardsmen about their exposure to toxic chemicals at Gagetown and the harmful impact it had on their health.

During Wednesday’s meeting Jackson said he hopes the commission will provide a forum for former members of the Maine National Guard who served at Gagetown — and in some cases their loved ones — to talk about what they saw and experienced at the Canadian military support base in terms of harmful chemicals and how it has impacted their health in the years following their service.  

“I want people recognized and told they did have something happen to them and to be somewhat compensated,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure what we can do, but more than anything I want to make sure people are heard.”

The 10-member joint commission is chaired by Jackson and Rep. Ron Russell, D-Verona Island.

The majority of the members appointed to the commission are from Aroostook County and include veterans who served at Gagetown and believe they were harmed by the chemicals. Also on the commission are representatives of veterans advocacy organizations, a family member of a veteran who served at Gagetown and someone with experience processing veterans claims for benefits related to harmful chemicals.

The duties of the commission are to study impacts of exposure to harmful chemicals on veterans who served at Gagetown. In four meetings they are tasked with preparing a draft report of their findings, their recommendations and suggested legislation.

In their final meeting the week of Dec. 15, the report will be finalized and then published and presented to the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs.

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...