Agent Orange: Gulfport Residents Fear Silent Killer Stalks Them

U.S. Navy Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11

U.S. Navy Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11 participate in a forced march at Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport in Gulfport, Miss., May 1, 2013. Residents around the base have long complained about what they believe are the health impacts of long-documented leaks of Agent Orange.

One month after ATSDR gives the “all clear” to current dioxin risk, the U.S. Navy prepares for a new cleanup effort.


The Vulcanus, a Dutch incinerator ship, disposed of an estimated 1.7 million gallons of Agent Orange at sea in 1977 and 1978. The operation was carried out in the Pacific Ocean for the U.S. Air Force.

[NOTE: This is likely the most important story I wrote during my time in Mississippi. While it was on the front page of the Gulfport paper on September 12, 2004, it wasn’t picked up by the Associated Press and too quickly fell behind the website’s paywall. I am posting it here so those fighting for full recognition of the harm AO caused in the U.S. and beyond — including Veterans For Peace and the VAORRC among others — may have easy access.]

“That whole neighborhood is dying over there, and it’s not a quick, painless death,” said 33-year-old Stephanie Ragar, who grew up playing at her grandparents’ house two blocks from the base. “I watched my mother throw up her liver in a trash can.”

Federal and state regulators have been tracking and trying to clean up Agent Orange pollution north of the base, first traced into neighborhood ditches and streams in 1979, for years.

Suzanne Collum, who grew up a block north of the base, can cast her eye almost in any direction on her old street and find them.

On her left is a father lost to cancer whose infant daughter was diagnosed with childhood leukemia. On her right are two learning disabled children. Collum’s own children suffer from recurrent reproductive problems.

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“There’s a lot of heart problems, liver problems, but especially kidney problems,” Collum said. “We have 13 retardations in a five-block radius.”

Surveyors hired by the U.S. Navy walked the streets around the base to talk to residents. What they discovered there left the surveyors suffering “significant emotional stress,” according to the Navy report.

While federal agencies have tracked the pollution in the soils and water, the residents themselves say they haven’t received the attention they deserve.

“They keep saying they’re testing this and testing that, but when it comes to the sicknesses and diseases in our neighborhood, they’re saying, ‘We can’t believe this is happening now from something back in the ’70s,'” said Valerie Fryou.

In a report released last month, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the principal chemical of concern in the Agent Orange — tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD — is not a public health risk. The more difficult question, whether lives were put in jeopardy in years past, or if current illnesses may be linked to old exposures, could not be determined because of a lack of information, the report states.

Requests by residents for the agency to take blood samples in hopes of showing what, if anything, is in their bodies making them sick were turned down based on a lack of demonstrated risk.

About seven years ago, just a few years after the Seabee Base was rejected as a potential Superfund site, a federal designation given to the most polluted sites in the country, surveyors hired by the U.S. Navy walked the streets around the base to talk to residents.

What they found — story after story of failing bodies, sickness and death, mostly blamed on leaching chemical pits and Agent Orange leaks from the base — left the surveyors suffering “significant emotional stress,” according to the Navy report.

“Although the surveyors were trained in how to deal with stories like these, they were surprised by the number of cancer incidents in the neighborhoods, and this was a source of significant emotional stress to several of them,” the report reads.

The Mississippi Department of Health has never done a similar survey to try to determine if clusters of related illnesses exist that could be blamed on toxic exposure, according to numerous sources.

Requests for information on this point e-mailed Monday to health department officials — who require all questions from The Sun Herald to be submitted in writing — had not been answered by Friday afternoon. Even the Navy has been unimpressed with the MDH’s response through the years.

The health department’s habit of comparing county-to-county statistics, rather than walking door to door as surveyors did in 1997, is not the best way to study illness in a specific neighborhood, the Navy’s 1997 report states.

“While this practice can help identify cancer clusters by statistical comparisons,” the report says, “it is of less use for smaller study areas, such as the survey neighborhoods.”

The scarcity of hard data maintained by the U.S. Navy has been frustrating for Gordon Crane, the base’s environmental program manager who complains that records about Agent Orange predating 1982 are virtually nonexistent.

Although numerous cleanup efforts have been performed through the years both on and off the base, the Navy has identified yet another stretch of wetlands along Canal Road that still requires remediation. Along the way, the effort being joined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will include tests for any other hazardous substances. These include lead and cadmium that has leached from the base’s waste pits into groundwater beneath the base, Crane said.

Former dockworkers who unloaded railroad cars of Agent Orange weekly at the Port of Gulfport to be shipped off to Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 have their own horror stories.
“We poured out more stuff on the docks down there than we did in Vietnam,” said Frank Ladner, who retired from the port in 1985. “Nobody’s saying anything about that . . . All those boys that worked with me are damn near dead.”

Ladner says he has suffered severe nerve damage and has had numerous joints replaced. He talks about forklifts punching holes in the drums and of black fluid spraying out, or barrels dropping from pallets being hoisted by crane onto waiting vessels.

“I’ve had this stuff in my eyes. I’ve had it all over,” Ladner said.

Joe McKay, who spent about 45 years on the docks, said he recalled such spills but doesn’t share Ladner’s health complaints.

Not familiar with the toxic nature of the liquid, workers would spray spills off into the water, both said.

“We didn’t know what we were working with,” Ladner said. “So help me God, we didn’t know.”


Dioxin may play role in birth defects

Current science, known leaks suggest children’s deaths may have dioxin link

agent orange children

Ho Chi Minh. Professor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, at Tu Du Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital is pictured with a group of handicapped children, most of them victims of Agent Orange.

GULFPORT — New information suggests that at least five cases of a rare birth defect occurring around the Naval Construction Battalion Center in the late 1970s, written off by doctors at the time to “chance,” may have been linked to dioxin contamination.

Dr. Robert Edwards, who performed some of the autopsies in 1979, said there was no link to Agent Orange exposure and the children born with gastroschisis because there were no known leaks at the base.

However, only two months after Edwards’ report came out, dioxin contamination from leaking drums of Agent Orange was tracked into the drainage ditches and streams in the neighborhoods outside the base.

Gastroschisis, a condition in which a defect or hole in the abdominal wall allows the abdominal contents to protrude outside the body, typically occurs in one out of 10,000 births.

And while studies have suggested potential links between Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam veterans and birth defects for years, studies just being completed at the University of Arizona are making that link clearer.

“I can see a repercussion maybe, if you look at the first stages of development,” said Ornella Selmin, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, who has just completed a series of studies of dioxin and estrogen production.

“If the embryo … is exposed to dioxin, maybe we can have an alteration on development …  I can’t really say what the outcome would be, but any subtle change in hormone development maybe could have an effect on a future cancer development.”

Already known to harm the network of glands, hormones and receptors that help link the nervous system with reproduction and immune system functions, dioxin also may sow the seeds of breast cancer both in exposed women and their newborns, she said.

A 1997 report of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggests that women who live near toxic waste sites are more than three times as likely to give birth to children with gastroschisis.


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24 responses to “Agent Orange: Gulfport Residents Fear Silent Killer Stalks Them

  1. this scares me as when I lived in Gpt. we filled a lot of our land with the dirt they gave away and I am sure now it must of had agent orange in it. I know a lot of people including myself who has some of these symptoms related to agent orange I do not now

  2. I lived in the area where they stored this which is what they used as the crane yard for many years to follow there was a creek in my backyard which up until 2010 the creek was just grass they covered the whole creek in concrete and raised the soil in the crane yard adding a driving range and vents with caution signs atating do not excavate no word was ever released on this but i believe the military should owe me alot of money for living here.y number is 9402243149 if any attourney ever wants to help i have joint failure all over my body now who knows why maybe this.

  3. Melvin Gibson I was stationed with NMCB 74 from 1976-1979 at Gulfport. During this time we held company training next to the area what held agent orange. We set up com. centers that were taught out of warehouse 62. We dug fighting positions and did truck convoys with ambushes on the dirt road that ran along the train tracks that was used to move the agent orange to the port in the summer of 1977. I was also stationed at the 20th NCR military training dept. 1981-1984. I also worked for P.W. for 14 years. I know numbers of people that have suffered or is still sick with signs that the V.A. says are signs of agent orange that Vietnam Vets contracted. I myself have about 16 inches of my lower intestine missing , liver problems, prostrate problems, high blood pressure, blood sugar, I feel that all the digging, crawling, and breathing of dust thru time from this area has contributed to my bad health. If you are in its location it is buried under about two foot of concrete the turkey creek clean up was placed in the same place as the drums of agent orange were stored in 1976. If you drive down the road just west of P.W. You can still see signs posted to contact environmental for entry. ?????. If this area is clean why the signs.

    • Hello:

      My name is Wayne Sherman from Salem Oregon. I was stationed at GP MS from 72-73 for P School and Military Training. I have a number of medical conditions including A Fib and Peripheral Poly Neuropathy in my feet and hands – yet the proof of burden is on me to prove my exposure to AO on the base – any input or connections would be appreciated. Thank you.

      • I was home ported there MNCB1, I have a number of medical issues, VA has denied me. IPF, had lung transplant nov 2017

    • Are you sure it was the summer of 1977? The Vulcanus had already left for the Pacific by that time.

  4. I was on Detail Oscar building advance bases for the Brown Water Navy when we were sprayed by C130’s at treetop level with something we weren’t told. I’m currently being evaluated by the VA. This is something else to add to list because of all the training done at GP. Thanks.

    • Still seeking anyone who attended Seabee Military Training or P School during December 1972 – 73 at Gulfport MS experiencing medical issues. Thank you.
      Wayne R. Sherman
      Salem, Oregon

      • You should make about 200 copies of this article and start giving them out to the residence of Gulfport only after you give a copy to the VA…..You are too young to have those problems… states in the article that they know there is a problem. there is still signs posted…..Also go in to the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. No one has cleaned up their mess……

        The VA also set a time limit on any claims out of Gulfport when they know it is an on going problem

        Ron Keffer
        mcb 133 Phu Bai 1968

  5. I was stationed off and on in Gulfport at the Seabee base from 1977 till 1995 for A School, the Regiment and NMCB 133. My youngest daughter was born at Keesler AFB in 1990. We left there in 1995 and when my youngest daughter was just about to turn 14 in 2005 she was diagnosed with a Stage 3 almost Stage 4 cancer- Esthesioneuroblastoma. The doctors told us it was a very rare cancer and was caused by something environmentally. I will always wonder if the Agent Orange has something to do with this since she spent a lot of time at NCBC Gulfport.

  6. I & my sq.mcb 133 1966 _1968 d co. 3 of my men have pros. Can. One write now going for treatment


  7. I was stationed at Gulfport right after A School awaiting orders to NMCB 133. In the 30 days In June 1976 I was put on a detail to the north side of the base doing grunt work. We use to spray the back fence area and clean up leaking drums.
    I am having several related Heath issues which could be because of my exposure, The VA is denying any liability, they had asked me to find someone that worked with me. That was 40 years ago, I was just a kid doing what I was directed to do; I was pretty much solo at the time due to my orders being changed from NMCB 5 to NMCB133. I imagine without getting an attorney I am just going to have to live with my burden and most likely die with it.
    If there is anyone out their that remembers going that detail in June of 1976 please get ahold of me.

  8. hello I’m Tim I was stationed at Gulfport Mississippi in 77 March AprilI’ve been working on mine Appeals for many years and I have a helper now my attorney Roger Hale whose number is 1 800 522-4595 and I would help anybody as I accomplish my claims Roger was in the. military

  9. well that’s just fan-fucking-tastic. i live just outside the base. interesting side note: low income housing/projects all around the perimeter…with very poor drainage. you can bet your sweet ass the majority of residents do not access the internet & local media hasn’t reported on this in years. but we do drink unfiltered tap water, have/get cancer, joint problems, and neuropathy out the wazoo.

  10. I don’t know what to say, other than the people at NCBC at Gulfport and the surrounding area are my people and I will help them to the best of my ability.

  11. I am researching the period of 1973 to 1977 at the Gulfport NCBC docks. I am interested in speaking with dock workers during this time regarding the loading of drums on a barge every five to eight days. Please contact me at This is critically important to fill in the dioxin story.

  12. Appreciate everyone’s input. Still trying to locate records that prove I was even stationed there. I believe a letter to the Trump Administration is in order. Thank you everyone.

  13. I was stationed at gulfport from 73-77 WITH MCB133 Had prostate cancer and i now have heart disease. have been fighting with the VA for about 4 yrs. the agent orange was stored in rusting leaking barrels rite across the street from our barracks.

  14. I was stationed with NMCB 133 in Gulfport in 1972-1973. I have some health issues but have only recently heard about the rise in problems that may be associated with Agent Orange stored there. As usual, the VA denies any liability until it gets politically stirred up. I’d like to follow this more. Any links to websites that are monitoring this more fully ?

  15. I was stationed there for A schoo Aprill 1987 and assigned to NMCB 1 thru Jan. 1991. They incinerated, on the base, near the barracks location, mega tons the dirt which was saturated with Agent Orange seepage. The white smoke bellowed out of the stack for months as we did our daily PT, and outdoors routines. I’m relatively sure any exposure to this activity might have some long-term cause for concern. We were advosed to stay in doors, when the cool shore effect kept the vapors downward towards the surface. I looked forward to the gas mask exercises and even the gas chamber, vice breathing the surrounding atmosphere. I’ve been diagnosed.sleep apnea. Breathing at night is Cpap assisted. I wonder if?

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