CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA)- The Army sent a Pinellas County veteran along with thousands of military personnel to Panama to protect the Panama Canal.
There they encountered defoliation, contamination and now they deal with debilitation from diseases similar to the illnesses suffered by Vietnam Veterans.
Frank Cayer of Clearwater arrived in Panama in 1976, as a member of the military police.
“I just feel like I’ve been sprayed and betrayed along with other soldiers,” Cayer said.
His photos show whatever the military sprayed on the surrounding jungle, turned it brown and dead, and remembers it landing on him.
“One day I was I was wondering why it was raining outside, there was no clouds, so I went outside and there was a heli on top of me with a silver cylinder and the pilot couldn’t see me cause I was directly under it,” Cayer explained. “And all the liquid just came down the side of my face, and I didn’t know what it was, I just continued on, and did what I had to do.”
Soft tissue sarcoma, a disease linked to herbicide exposure, developed on Cayer’s face. A team of surgeons removed a malignant tumor the size of an orange.
“I can’t have any teeth, I had radiation treatments for over 20 days, and as you can see part of my mouth has been taken from me. This side of the mouth is all paralyzed,” Cayer stated.
Like others who served in Panama and are sick, Cayer turned to the VA.
“I’ve tried to file a claim since I found I had cancer, every time they take out the books and say, well Panama is not covered,” Cayer said.
U.S. Commerce Department shipping records reveal show that between 1958 and 1977 tons of toxic herbicides were sent to Panama.
The Panama Canal is economically and strategically vital to the United States. For well over 80 years the U.S. stationed tens of thousands of our military at more than a dozen bases in the Panama Canal Zone.
“We have thousands of veterans who have the same kind of diseases as the Vietnam veterans,” explained Donna Tornoe, who heads Military Veterans Advocacy’s Veterans of Panama project. “They have for decades now made claim that these agents were in Panama and they’ve been ignored.”
The illnesses should not come as a surprise.
When Tornoe heard that the military may have used the toxic weed killer Agent Orange to defoliate the canal zone she started digging.
She found Commerce Department records show tons of the toxic herbicides 2,4, D and 2,4,5, T were shipped to Panama.
The same herbicides used in Vietnam to defoliate jungles and now linked to debilitating diseases.
“Anywhere they used 2,4,5, T for vegetation management dioxin was present,” Tornoe explained. “And it’s the dioxin that is harmful to the veterans.”
“We see shipments of 2,4, D, and 2,4,5, T as early as 1958,” Donna explained. “Anywhere they used 2,4,5, T for vegetation management, dioxin was present. and it’s the dioxin that is harmful to the veterans.”
While in Panama, Tornoe remembers the military sprayed everyday.
“They sprayed around our quarters, they sprayed around our buildings,” she said.
Tornoe says worked while her husband Gene served in the Army in the canal zone. Within years of leaving Panama, Donna says Gene’s health deteriorated.
“My husband was in and out of the hospital for 20 years first starting with diabetes and then he grew 14 stones within his pancreas and had to have surgery,” Tornoe explained.
The VA twice denied Gene’s claim for disability compensation.
“They were defoliating with something and 2,4,D and 2,4,5,T was there,” Tornoe added.
Gene’s latest appeal is sitting with the Board of Veterans Appeals.
What is also sitting at the VA is a request by the Military Veterans Advocacy asking Secretary Robert Wilkie for a rule change that would include Panama in the locations where it is presumed veterans were exposed to herbicides. The request was sent in January, since then Donna has heard nothing.
“This is not a small deal, it’s real big,” Cayer added. “I think they’re afraid to bring it out in the open.”
The Military Veterans Advocacy has also asked the VA for a similar rule change to include veterans of Guam. VA Under Secretary Paul Lawrence rejected the request.
Military Veterans Advocacy has since filed a federal lawsuit against the VA seeking presumptive status for veterans who served on Guam.
“We all say it’s deny, deny, deny, die, so we’re gonna die and then afterwards it’s, oh yeah we did have this problem but these guys are all dead right now they didn’t collect,” Cayer explained. “They don’t want to pay, they don’t want to pay out what they did to us.”