Thousands of local soldiers may have been exposed to Agent Orange even though they never set foot in Vietnam.
Some of these retired soldiers from right here in Massachusetts are sick, and are wondering if the Agent Orange they encountered at a remote Canadian military base is to blame.
"I'm totally convinced that the government that I worked for knew this stuff before we went there," said Matthew Masnik, a retired Army Reserves colonel suffering from diabetes and other health problems. "They need to do something at least to get the people checked out."
Masnik and thousands of others trained at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, a vast military base located deep within the New Brunswick woods. They would typically drill for two weeks at a time, working and sleeping in the mud and dust, even eating wild berries.
But many of these veterans are just learning that toxic chemicals including Agent Orange were used to clear Gagetown of vegetation, leaving some to wonder whether their government exposed them to danger.
Masnik recalled how portions of the base looked when he trained there in 1985 as a captain in a Fort Devens-based Army Reserves unit.
"When a forest burns, all you see is just sticks. That's basically what you'd see. Just nothing there," he said. "My first sergeant actually took me for a tour....He goes look, look at all the dead areas. That's Agent Orange."
Agent Orange is the toxic defoliant known mostly for its use in Vietnam. It was sprayed to kill the vegetation used by the Viet Cong for cover. Veterans exposed to it still suffer higher rates of cancer and other diseases.
But Agent Orange's deadly legacy was far from the minds of the reservists at Gagetown in Canada.
"I don't think anybody thought about what was around us," he said.
Masnik didn't think much, either, about the rash that appeared on his face a few months after his Gagetown deployment.
But his concern grew when he was diagnosed with disabetes at the age of 48. And his health problems continue to grow.
"Do you wonder if these health problems are because you were in Gagetown," asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.
"I'm convinced that Gagetown contributed to it," Masnik said.
Masnik is not alone. Drawn by Gagetown's massive size, allied troops from all over the world trained there. And so did at least 5,000 Massachusetts National Guard Soldiers, who were deployed there for two weeks in 1988.
Ralph Berardi made a career out of the Army and Army Reserves.
In 1987 he was sent to Gagetown for a three-day scouting mission for the Army Reserves. He, too, remembers large portions of the base emptied of trees and vegetation.
"You'd drive around the corners and it'd be open areas where there was nothing that was growing," Berardi said. “It was just empty."
Now retired from the military and living in Clinton, Berardi has faced three bouts of cancer. He wonders whether his time at Gagetown caused it.
"I don't think it was the right thing to do," Berardi said. "You don't send people to areas that are contaminated."
The Canadian government says only small amounts of Agent Orange, along with Agent Purple, another toxic herbicide, were sprayed in 1966 and 1967. A recent Canadian Defence Department report concluded that, "...most people who lived or worked at (Canadian Forces Base) Gagetown were not at risk for long-term health effects from the herbicides applied there."
But Canadian veterans and even their widows have been battling their government for years, saying the truth about herbicides and Gagetown has yet to come out.
In a lawsuit, veterans and their families say Agent Orange was sprayed more often than the two years the government admits to, exposing people at the base to the defoliant's deadliest component: dioxin.
"There were a number of conditions that were considered to be associated with dioxin exposure. These include a number of cancers," said John Stegeman, a toxicologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has chaired Institute of Medicine committees examining the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam Veterans.
Stegeman reviewed some of the documents available about herbicide use at Gagetown.
"From my looking at the material available there are a lot of questions that are unanswered,” he said. “Who was exposed, to what, where and when.”
In addition to Agent Orange, much larger amounts – millions of liters, of so-called Agent White were used at Gagetown. It’s not as deadly as Agent Orange, but the solution, also called Tordon 101, contained a different toxic chemical – hexachlorobenzene– that carries its own health risks.
One man who wants to know is Richard Pelletier. The Framingham resident is a former Marine and Maine National Guardsman who also trained at Gagetown.
“People were eating blueberries and strawberries. There were even ponds, people swam in ponds, even people fished,” he said. “We thought the place was safe.”
Pelletier believes that Gagetown was not safe, but he's had little luck getting the government to pay attention.
“I feel very angry. I feel very angry that people don't know,” he said. “We need to know who did it, why they did it and why we weren't told.”
The Massachusetts National Guard declined a request for an interview, but issued a statement saying, “The Massachusetts National Guard takes very seriously the safety and well-being of both present Soldiers and Airmen and our Veterans."
The statement adds that “It is unknown if Massachusetts National Guard soldiers or Airmen were present at the exact location and time of spraying."
The US Veterans Administration says that any American veteran who participated in Agent Orange spraying at Gagetown during 1966 or 1967 and has a disease linked to the herbicide will receive a disability benefit.
The VA told FOX Undercover in a statement that the agency encouraged veterans who served at Gagetown and think they suffer from exposure to file a claim, but said that such claims outside of the 1966-67 time period will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. To win, a veteran will have to prove he or she was exposed, which might be difficult because of how little information there is about US training at the base.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has also asked the US Department of Defense to look into the Gagetown soldiers’ concerns.
>>Read the statement from the Mass. National Guard:
"The Massachusetts National Guard takes very seriously the safety and well-being of both present Soldiers and Airmen and our Veterans. To date, we have not been made aware of any claims of possible exposure to Agent Orange at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick. The former 26th Yankee Division of the Massachusetts National Guard conducted its Annual Training rotation at Gagetown in 1988. It is unknown if Massachusetts National Guard Soldiers or Airmen were present at the exact location and time of spraying.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services, no reported cases of exposure have been reported. Massachusetts National Guard Medical Command directs service members who think they may have been exposed to contact their primary care provider or they may request an Agent Orange Registry Health Examination through the VA medical center by calling (800) 749-8387."
>>Statement from the US Veterans Administration:
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides presumptive service connection for certain diseases that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found to be associated with exposure to some herbicide agents used in Vietnam.
Service connection for any of the herbicide presumptive diseases may be granted to any U.S. Veteran who participated in herbicide testing during June 14-17, 1966 and June 20-24, 1967, at Base Gagetown.
In general, for cases of potential herbicide exposure outside Vietnam, VA must consider whatever facts are available about the herbicide use and the Veteran’s location. A finding must then be made regarding exposure on a case-by-case basis.
The Department will continue to assess whether additional presumptive disabilities should be created based on future IOM reports.