Vietnam veteran James Kaelin stands on a dirt road staring into an empty scrub forest once part of Fort Chaffee, a U.S. Army Training camp east of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
“They won’t even admit to this being a test site to anybody,” Kaelin says. “But I have information showing the Army tested Agent Orange, Agent White and Agent Blue on seven different locations on Fort Chaffee in 1966 and 1967 without knowledge to the general public. It was top secret.”
Kaelin has brought with him a stack of white papers a half-foot deep, still on the floorboard of his burgundy pickup, military documents proving that Fort Chaffee was a chemical weapons proving ground. Cicadas trill this hot August morning as military aircraft buzz overhead. Kaelin frequently pauses while telling his story to identify the make of each plane going by, without looking up.
“Rumor has it that pine trees were planted along the perimeter of this one test site,” Kaelin says, “in order to camouflage all the dead foliage inside.”
During the Vietnam War, U.S. military forces decimated jungles occupied by North Vietnamese with tactical defoliants. The chemical agent mixtures, categorized by colorful code names, were tested on U.S. national forests as well as more than a dozen rural military bases including Fort Chaffee, a 75,000-acre Army post straddling Sebastian and Crawford Counties in west central Arkansas.
Kaelin, an Air Force and Navy Veteran, has been raising cane about the testing for more than a decade. only affected veterans, he says, are responding.
“They’ve fallen into illnesses they cannot explain,” he says, “and this is the only link they have to being exposed to Agent Orange,” referring to his website where he curates relevant research.
Trucks occasionally barrel by, kicking up thick clouds of dust. Kaelin says Chaffee veterans who witnessed the Agent Orange testing talk about soldiers getting soaked with chemicals and sloshing through puddles of the stuff.
Billy Poston joined the Army when he was 18 and was assigned to a caretaker attachment as a game warden on Fort Chaffee a month after the herbicide testing ceased. He agreed to meet at Mama’s Country Cafe just up the road from the base. The 68-year old veteran walks with a cane — and a grudge.
“I didn’t known nothin’ about Agent Orange” Poston says scowling, “and I was wandering around in it.”
Poston is diagnosed with ischemic heart disease, one of 10 qualifying medical conditions the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs attributes to exposure to Agent Orange.
Poston met James Kaelin inside this cafe a decade ago, disclosing his service record and physical ailments to him. Kaelin asked Poston if he was signed up for VA benefits. Negative, Poston said. Kaelin informed him he was likely contaminated with Agent Orange and urged him to file a special benefits claim. Poston did, and says he was denied at first.
“But we appealed it,” he says. “And they admitted it. And they approved it.”
Kaelin says Poston is the first and only veteran in the U.S. to be granted service-connected Agent Orange medical compensation due to exposure to U.S. military base tactical defoliant testing. A Fort Gordon, Georgia veteran, however, who too served as a military game warden, has reportedly also been compensated.
Arkansas Public Media submitted a formal request to the VA for an accounting of other veterans like Poston. We were told the agency tracks claims only by condition, not cause or location of contamination. To date, more than 8,500 veterans exposed to Agent Orange outside of Vietnam have been granted compensation, along with more than 542,000 veterans compensated for presumed exposure while serving in Vietnam.
From 1962 to 1971 more than 19 million gallons of herbicide and defoliant blends were used in Vietnam
The most common was Agent Orange which contains 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, TCDD for short, today classified as a persistent environmental pollutant.
Dioxins slowly degrade in sunlight, but if physically absorbed by humans or chemically bound to dirt, it can persist for up to a decade. If buried in subsurface sediments, dioxins may remain toxic for up to a century.
Fort Chaffee is at the top of a U.S. Department of Defense herbicide usage and storage test sites list. In 2006, the U.S. Army Research Office commissioned a study to reconstruct the history of U.S. testing, evaluation and storage of tactical herbicides. The document reveals that in 1967, ten drums of Agent Blue, White and Orange were applied over six areas of varying sizes, including one 750-acre test site. A contract Bell G-2 helicopter, equipped with two 40-gallon tanks, discharged more than 10 gallons per acre in 50-foot swaths. At each location, 12 drums of rapid defoliants were broadcast to measure the death rate of oak hickory forests and prairies on Fort Chaffee.
Two years after the historical study, U.S. Army Environmental Command ordered a full investigation. The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Medicine conducted the study, sampling both defoliant test plots and non-test plots on the base to measure the residual presence of dioxins. Arkansas Public Media queried Environmental Command for the latest status report. The agency responded, saying the military base has been the subject of environmental monitoring since 1999 and that “no samples contained dioxin or dioxin-like compounds above federal or state human health risk screening criteria, and no further cleanup action was recommended for the sites.”
The U.S. Department of Defense terminated the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam in 1971 as well as testing on U.S. military bases and national forests. Stockpiles of the toxic chemicals were ordered returned to the U.S. but instead were shipped to Johnston Island in the South Pacific for disposal. But according to Col. Gene McVay, who served as base commander of Fort Chaffee's air-to-ground bombing range in the 1970s, leftover Agent Orange and other tactical herbicides were used up on Chaffee — as weedkiller.
“The chemicals were sprayed around barracks, office buildings, on practice ranges, fire brakes, and along roadways,” McVay says.
Army Environmental Command had no information about this, but U.S. military facilities, according to the VA routinely used tactical herbicides to defoliate landscapes during that era.
If Agent Orange was broadcast widely across Fort Chaffee for routine weed control, it raises questions about the military environmental sampling that compared test site sediments with non-test site sediments. Questions also remain regarding long-term collateral damage to nearby civilian populations downwind.
Joan Becker, 71, sips an icy glass of sweet tea as she recollects being a newlywed in 1967 in Charleston, a town on the perimeter of Fort Chaffee.
“We raised a garden,” she says, “a beautiful garden. And one day we got up and everything was dead.”
Becker’s husband complained to the base commander. They were paid cash — Becker doesn’t recall how much. She replanted the following spring. Becker later developed breast cancer. She worries it might be the Agent Orange.
“A lot of other Charleston residents have also been diagnosed with cancer,” she says.
The Arkansas Cancer Registry aggregates physician-reported cancer cases by county. It reveals only moderate levels of cancer in the two-county region.
Becker says her brother, a Vietnam army veteran is on Agent Orange disability. He suffers with persistent debilitating rashes, diagnosed as Chloracne.
“A real red, raw rash. It’s bad,” Becker says, looking away.
Affected veterans are also being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, various cancers, and peripheral neuropathy. No data yet exist on the health impacts of widespread tactical herbicide testing on troops assigned to base defoliant testing, as well as soldiers living on-site, across the more than a dozen U.S. military sites. In 1988, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Agent Orange validation study measured the blood of 646 ground troops heavily exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, against 97 veterans who did not serve in Vietnam. The purpose of the study was to determine whether military records could be used to identify U.S. Army Vietnam veterans who were likely to have been exposed. The blood levels of both groups were nearly identical.
Fort Chaffee is now occupied by the Army National Guard which uses it as a training camp under a 1995 Base Realignment And Closure order. Arkansas Public Media queried a state National Guard spokesperson about the testing, yielding no response. A 7,000 acre parcel on the original post was also set aside for civilian use. Called Chaffee Crossing, the award-winning BRAC development contains lots of new homes, manufacturing, and a medical school.
Chaffee Crossing also sits on several historic Army defoliant test sites, an aircraft runway, and a trash dump allegedly filled with Agent Orange barrel debris.
But Ivy Owen, long-time director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority says he’s not worried.
“Everything I know is being monitored, on a yearly basis,” he says. “The barrel [dump] site which is covered and intact is being monitored too. As far as I know we’ve not had any encounter with Agent Orange, yellow, pink, black or whatever color it might be.”
Arkansas Public Media contacted the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to confirm any special ecological status for Chaffee Crossing. A spokesperson provided us a link to the 2009 Army Environmental Command study, as well as a BRAC map indicating four Army trench landfills, which the agency says it closely monitored for a time. Until further notice Chaffee Crossing and Fort Chaffee will remain under environmental surveillance.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.