Sometimes it is easier to be cynical and believe one person can’t make a difference, so why try? But, if everyone acted on this premise, nothing would get done. There would be no progress. Every day we make choices, and those choices determine what happens to us. This series is about those who chose to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of our veterans. By reading how they turned around the worst that could happen to them, you can turn their inspiration into a model for recovery and self-healing for yourself. Well-known veteran advocate Kenneth H. Young CD heads up this series. Again, it is told in parts based on interview questions that I put to him. BONNIE
THE BATTLE TO REVEAL TOXIC POISONING OF CANADIAN TROOPS
PART ONE. THE CAUSE
1. What happened at Gagetown?
Well, I guess you could say my platoon was punished to death. Let me explain. In 1972, while on a training exercise called, “Running Jump Two,” my platoon Recce Platoon 1 RCR was deployed to CFB Gagetown as “the Enemy” for the Brigade. The first week or so was sort of run-up or shake down – you know in order to get the cob-webs out of everybody, or as we like to say, “to get the soft beds and pillows out of our heads.” But then the commander wanted to relocate his troops and so we, “the Enemy,” had the weekend off. Three of us figured that we would like to go fishing and asked permission and were even given a 3/4 ton truck to drive.
We got to a lake and began fishing with not a bite and so we went to yet another lake and so on. On our last lake we found ourselves close to a bivouac and were soon approached by a soldier and asked for the pass word and what the heck we were doing there. Well, to make a long story short, we didn’t know the pass word but soon discovered we were right in the middle of Brigade Head Quarters (HQ). This didn’t make the commander very happy. Here was “the Enemy” right in the middle of his HQ and so he was going to have to spend another three days relocating all of his troops.
Needless to say, if a soldier makes a general unhappy, it isn’t very long before he returns the favour with added unhappiness for good measure, and that very night we found out what the added measure was. Even though there were only three of us who went fishing, the entire platoon was punished by being taken out to a location where there was a large tree kill and then the trees were cut down and left laying where they fell like a game of, “Pick-up-sticks.” We were given a compass reading and told to follow it until we emerged at the other end.
WEAPONS OF MASS DEFOLIATION
It was a very dark night and we were not allowed to use any lights. We began crawling sometime in the dust on the ground and other times over the thick and almost impassable branches, only to tumble once again to the ground, being hit by branches on the way down. We could taste the chemicals but only had enough water with us to drink and couldn’t afford to rinse and spit before drinking. It took us almost 10 hours before we emerged from the deadfall.
Funny thing: there were no mosquitos, which we didn’t miss at the time, but when I look back, I have to wonder with all the swamps around where they were. Come to think of it, there were no frogs, no crickets, no bugs … there was no animal life whatsoever and, as the dawn approached, there were no bird sounds. Basically we had for over ten hours been crawling in a Chemical Dead Zone, where nothing survived… Nothing.
It was a warm night and because of the effort of climbing and crawling, we sweat a lot and the dust clung to us leaving us looking much like dust bunnies when we emerged from what can only be described as the Dead Zone. Because of the year, I would say that the chemical that year was what later came to be known in Vietnam as Agent White, which contained Hexachlorobenzene (HCB). In 2006, when they did soil testing, there were still 19 location in Gagetown that tested above the allowable levels for Dioxin. Today we know that many areas had been sprayed every two years, some even every year and now we know that according to the Government’s Lawyers we were sprayed with as much as 26 other toxic chemicals. This leaves us not knowing for sure which chemical or combination of chemicals is actually killing us.
By the way that is one of the Government of Canada’s arguments given during the hearings to see if we could launch a Class Action Law Suit against Ottawa. It went something like this, “How can they prove that TCDD Dioxin is the cause of their medical conditions when we also sprayed them with 26 other chemicals?”
Anyway, about two weeks later, I had to report to base London’s Medical Officer on Sick Parade with flulike symptoms. At the time I didn’t think much of it. I mean everyone catches the flu from time to time. But today when I look back at my medical records, I was catching the flu often, very often in fact too often to actually be the flu, and in October of 1974, I crumpled over and the Medical Officer at Base London sent we to Westminster Hospital, a Veterans Affairs Hospital, in London Ontario, where I would remained until the following year.
2. How were you and your family affected?
Because I was not there, I most lightly will not be able to describe with justice the complete effects on my wife, Christiane, and our kids, but I will try. First we just had our second child in June of that year and had also just moved out of the city (London) to the country. Our new home had wood heat and well water and some nice wooded areas. I had not had time enough to complete cutting the fire wood to heat the house for the winter nor had I prepared the pump house for the winter. So here is my wife with two children, with little fire wood and not much prepared for winter…. (We both thought that I would have time enough for that.) and me in the hospital with our only car sitting at CFB London a full 35 miles away from Christiane and our new home.
She did end up getting the car, but that didn’t make anything at home easier for her. Fortunately some neighbours came over and fixed her up with fire wood and I suppose winterized the well and pump house. But Christiane also had to contend with me being hospitalized and very sick. I was having severe cramps, diarrhea, night sweats, unexplained high fevers, blood irregularities, uncontrolled loss of weight and was sometimes unconsciousness for no apparent reason. I believe that I had every test in the book with some days having as much as 20 vials of blood being drawn – definitely too many to list.
I remember one day after a lymph angiogram and as Christiane was visiting me in the hospital, I had a reaction to the angiogram dye and sort of died right there as she was talking to me. I am told that the doctor had to give me an adrenaline shot directly to the heart and do CPR to revive me. I was also told that my wife freaked out and was forcefully removed from the room.
Christiane was also called into the doctor’s office and told that I had Hodgkin’s disease and that I might live as much as another five years depending on how I reacted to the radiation treatments and the chemo therapy, but there was one more operation which they needed to do first. This operation took place on December 19, 1974, so I gather that it wasn’t much of a Christmas for my wife and two children. During the operation they did all kinds of biopsies and for some as of yet unexplained reason removed my spleen.
When I think back, I have to laugh. Back then, the times were different before we lost many of our freedoms. For Christmas, Christiane (god bless her heart) thinking that I was going to die brought me the gift I most wanted – a rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Walked right into the Surgical Ward at the hospital and gave it to me in bed. LOL Try that today.
Anyway in Feb of 1975 and weighing only 63 pounds (skin and bones I would say) I was sent home to die as the hospital figured that there was nothing more they could do for me or too me for that matter.
Because of all of the medication I was on – many of them very strong drugs – my wife and I decided that we would not chance another child.
As you can see, I didn’t die, and I have with good food more then recovered my weight but many of the symptoms remain and because they removed my spleen I now have an immune system problem. You see the spleen is the organ which produces the large-attack white blood cells to fight unwanted contaminants and is one of the first blood filters. I no longer have much of an immune system and I tend to stay away from crowds, making family outings, graduations and socializing very difficult. I now however carry very strong antibiotics with me wherever I go and have been able to deal with large groups of people better, taking them at the very first sign of problems.
There were other problems – PTSD, learning to deal with death, rearranging our lives around my medical problems, mid-life crises and because of the very severe operation the inability of doing many of the things I used to take for granted, like heavy-lifting and running.
3. How did you overcome the results to become the whole person you are today?
Time I guess. Sooner or later you either die or grow up. Many people continue to call themselves victims of these chemicals – I was a victim when I was first contaminated, a victim when I became sick, a victim when they removed my spleen, and a continued victim because I didn’t know what the problem was or why I was continually sick. But that all changed in 2005, when the cat was finally let out of the bag and what had taken place at CFB Gagetown became common knowledge. That day I stopped being a victim and became a SURVIVOR and a FIGHTER for other survivors’ rights, especially their right to know what took place at Base Gagetown.
Before 2005, because I had no idea what was causing my problems, I could not even help the doctors to understand what was going on. That has changed, and now I have been teaching and informing every doctor I am forced to see. You see the medical profession also has no idea about these chemicals. Let’s face it: because the Government of Canada kept this such a well-kept secret, it has in effect made it so no one knew that there was a need for doctors to study the effects of toxic chemicals on the human body. In fact, we have very few doctors who know anything about these chemicals or how to diagnose or treat toxic chemical contamination. Heck! Most don’t even know the symptoms of toxic poisoning.
I guess you could say, that I am on a mission to educate the world. So, I would say having a reason to live and my wife are the largest two factors. But some credit must also go to many of the Veterans groups which have formed since 2005 and the ability to communicate via the internet. Veterans are no longer isolated and on their own, and information, both good and bad, is instantly available all around the world.
We now know that we are not alone, and that helps.
Note: Ken is a member of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, V.E.T.S., Agent Orange Association of Canada, Our Duty, Veterans Of Canada and NATO Veterans Organization of Canada.
NEXT: INVITED TO A GLOBAL CONFERENCE ON AGENT ORANGE
- CFB Gagetown working to save at-risk turtles (cbc.ca)
- Agent Orange exposure at Gagetown sparks U.S. probe (cbc.ca)
- CDC to probe Maine troops’ possible toxin exposure at Canadian base (stripes.com)
- If You Are Exposed To This Common Environmental Toxin, Your Great-Grandchildren Might Have Health Problems (fastcoexist.com)
- WSU study finds dioxin causes disease and reproductive problems across generations (eurekalert.org)
- Agent Orange Poisons New Generations in Vietnam (time.com)