Family claims Army sprayed Agent Orange at Fort Detrick

U.S. Air Force planes spray the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over dense vegetation in South Vietnam in this 1966 photo.

One cancer-stricken family says the Army sprayed the chemical Agent Orange at Fort Detrick years ago. They believe the testing caused so many of their family members' deaths.

Even after fifty years, Steve Koehl still remembers the helicopter that flew overhead when he was ten years old, riding his bike outside Fort Detrick.

“It flew right over, and all of a sudden, I don't know what it was, dust or something that was over my shirt and pants and stuff,” Koehl said.

It happened at least five other times, he says. Koehl now suspects Agent Orange was being sprayed.

“I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and they say that's generally caused by Agent Orange,” he said. For ten month, Koehl, now 61, has been battling blood cancer. Koehl's doctor says the man’s cancer could be fatal.

His 64-year old brother Gerald has thyroid cancer. His youngest brother Mark died at 50 last summer of lung and liver cancer.

“What is coming out of Detrick is killing people,” said Steve’s mother Grace Koehl.

The 87-year-old woman has lost six of seven children to cancer. She's convinced Agent Orange testing and the burial of chemicals at the fort are behind the cancer decimating two generations of her family.

“It's the streams that had the poison in them. We were guinea pigs. They knew what we were getting into, we're living with it,” she said.

The Koehl's aren't alone. “There is definitely a cancer cluster here,” said Catherine Rhoades, who also lives in Frederick.

At a forum organized by the Kristen Renee foundation, a non-profit representing cancer victims, some families say they plan to join a legal fight against the fort. At least 66 people have signed claim forms seeking millions in damages.

“Most of the people in here have seen somebody suffer and sickness, we don't want that. We don't want people to suffer and be sick,” said Julie Nichols, wife of a cancer victim.

The Army admits it has tested about thirty pounds worth of Agent Orange at Fort Detrick, but says it has no records of helicopters spraying the chemical. Military documents show a truck with a spray tower, and enclosed tents used for testing.

A military attorney insists anyone filing a claim must prove negligence by the Army. If a claim is denied, people have the right to file lawsuits.

The EPA says industrial solvents, Agent Orange wastes, and radioactive materials, buried deep underground, may have contaminated waterways.

“Not only do you have the water that can be contaminated, you have the vapors coming up from the water and from the soils that could be contaminating people,” said attorney Jennifer Jackman.

The National Academy of Sciences has found a link between the dioxin found in Agent Orange, and some cancers. Epidemiologist Tom Burke of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says proving the fort has caused a specific person's cancer could be difficult.

“There's evidence these compounds may be related to increased cancer risk,” Dr. Burke said. “Do we absolutely know that they cause cancer? No.”

“I just wish they would try to rectify the situation or at least admit to what they did, and try to fix the problem,” said Koehl.