MANITOULIN—When you join the military, danger is generally taken as a given, an integral part of the gig, but generally it is expected that danger comes in the form of the actions of an enemy, or perhaps from euphemistically labelled friendly-fire, but in modern warefare deadly danger sometimes lies in wait, hidden in the very the tools of the trade or environment in which you work.
Jim McDonald served his country at domestic bases, never venturing to foreign wars, but that did not make his service less dangerous and the aftereffects of his service did not become apparent until long after he mustered out.
Mr. McDonald was a Cold War soldier, serving his four-year enlistment with 12 Platoon of the RCR during those tense years when the Soviet Union and NATO were staring each other down and utilizing proxies in conflicts spanning the globe, testing war materials and new forms of combat weapons here at home before deploying them in the field. One of those testing grounds was CF Gagetown, where Mr. McDonald was stationed.
“I stayed in Canada as a Cold War soldier,” he said. “I was a grunt, in the infantry, the 2nd RCR (Royal Canadian Regiment).”
“Gagetown was used as a testing ground for Agent Orange,” he said. “Actually, there was Agent Orange, Agent Purple, it was a whole agent rainbow going on there.” In fact, the defoliant Agent Orange was so named due to the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped. Manufactured by chemical giants Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical, Agent Orange is a mixture of herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D and was the most widely deployed of the so-called Rainbow Herbicides.
Mr. McDonald’s work in constructing bases elements involved a lot of digging in ground contaminated with the carcinogenic chemicals. “I was digging holes in that dirt where they were testing everything,” he said. “I was talking to one of the lads, a guy from down east who I served with, and I asked him if he remembered when we were out there wearing NBC suits. He said ‘oh bie, Lord Thunderin bie’, and the wheels were starting to turn. Were they testing the soil or were they testing the suits?”
“When I tried to talk to Fantino and O’Toole from Veterans Affairs, they didn’t want to talk to me,” he said, adding that the bureaucracy “was sitting there telling me I was off my rocker.”
Although the US military has long recognized those diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange, and provided support and compensation to those who developed certain diseases after being exposed to the compounds, the Canadian military has lagged behind.
Today, Mr. McDonald’s face is pocked with the acne and craters that characterize the symptoms of exposure, but the cancer has devastated his body. “I lost my left ass cheek to this,” he said.
There are other tragedies that have struck his family, losing one child to SIDs and another has been afflicted with attention issues. As time has gone on, and the genetic connections of chemical exposure to infant deaths and other juvenile disorders are coming to light, Mr. McDonald has been left wondering if there are connections between his family’s exposure to the chemicals and the development of later complications in his relatives and himself. The answers to those questions come slowly, if at all.
Lacking answers to his questions, the former serviceman has gone in search of answers on his own, contacting researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and made connections with other veterans fighting similar battles with the bureaucracy to get recognition of their plight.
Among those things he learned from his communications with those studying the impact of the chemicals is that the timeline for the squamous cell carcinoma line up almost perfectly with the period in which he was exposed.
“The gestation period is 10 years,” he said. “I was 21 when I got out of the military and I was 31 when I was diagnosed.”
That began an almost 15-year battle for recognition of what happened to him. “It’s 10 or 15 years,” he said. “You get fighting for so long that you lose track.”
There were those in the civil service who did try to help, he noted, but in the case of one worker, he is convinced that she was terminated for trying to help him.
He has been working with veteran’s advocate Colin Pick and with retired Colonel Pat Stogran late of the Canadian Forces Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and Canada’s first Veteran’s Ombudsman.
In 2010, Col. Stogran criticized the Conservative government’s choice to enforce the New Veterans Charter, which was signed into law by the previous Liberal government in 2005 after all party approval. Among other changes, that charter took away veterans’ disability pensions in favour of a one-time lump sum payment. These were deemed inadequate when compared to compensation received by civilians who were similarly injured in industrial accidents.
Mr. McDonald points out that the issue of Agent Orange is not far removed from the general public. “You ever notice how there are no trees under the hydro lines or on the side of the highway?” he asked. “One year they spray 2,4,5-T and the next year they might spray 2,4-D.” Those two chemicals are what make up Agent Orange. “I don’t buy blueberries from the people selling them on the side of the road,” he said. “Where do you think they pick those berries? Where they are easier to reach, by hydro cuts and near roadways.”
Mr. McDonald has been largely unable to work since losing his body parts to cancer and the vagaries of his ongoing illnesses make finding any kind of employment difficult to nigh on impossible. “It used to be I could go into an employer and be able to tell him that I could work seven 12 hour shifts in a row,” he said. “Now I couldn’t guarantee that I could work five to eight hours. There are days when I couldn’t even make it into work.”
The $900 a month he receives on “welfare” does not go very far. “There are months when I had to make the decision of ‘do I put a roof over your heads?’ or ‘do I feed you?’,” he said.
On a brighter side, Mr. McDonald said that he noticed an immediate change in tone while dealing with Veterans Affairs in the aftermath of the recent federal election, leaving him with some hope that there will be a change in approach on the part of the government when it comes to veterans suffering from service related exposure to hazardous materials and the disabilities that come from that exposure. But after so many fruitless years fighting for recognition of the military service connection to his disability, Mr. McDonald admits he does find optimism difficult to find.
Lest We Forget.