Two visiting American veterans on Monday offered an apology before South Korea's parliament for burying toxic Agent Orange on the nation's U.S. military bases decades ago, urging a thorough investigation into the sites and people who may have been affected by the toxic herbicide.
After decades of silence and suffering from various ailments, Steve House said he decided to return to South Korea after more than 30 years away to get to the bottom of the case and raise awareness of the dangers of the toxic chemicals he buried.
House, now a grizzled man with long hair and a scraggly beard, is one of three former soldiers who claimed in May that they and other American GIs were ordered to bury at least 240 drums of Agent Orange at their camp in North Gyeongsang Province in 1978, sparking a joint U.S.-South Korean investigation last month.
"When I was invited to come here, I hesitated first because of my poor health," House, 55, said, leaning on a cane as he addressed parliament. "But I decided to come anyway because of the importance of this issue -- not only for the health and well-being of the Korean people but also for the U.S. veterans who served, as well as U.S. soldiers who are currently serving here."
Lawmakers of the main opposition Democratic Party and Democratic Labor Party invited the two U.S. veterans to return as part their investigation into allegations that the U.S. military buried Agent Orange on South Korean soil. The toxic defoliant, widely used during the Vietnam War, is suspected of causing serious health problems, including cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.
House said he and his colleagues participated in the burial work, hauling rusty, olive-green 55-gallon barrels, some bearing an orange stripe and yellow lettering that read "Chemical Agent, Type: Orange" and dated 1967. Although they first worked with gas masks fitted with orange, combat-ready filters, the soldiers were not required to wear them due to heat and humidity.
After returning home for his next duty assignment, House said he continued to suffer conditions such as skin rashes, a cough, neuropathy, eye problems and post traumatic stress disorder.
"I believe my current illnesses are connected to my encounter with the Agent Orange drums in Korea," House said between sobs. "I'm running out of time."
Philip Steward, who served as the 2nd lieutenant at Camp Peterson in the southern parts of the demilitarized zone between 1968 and 1969, apologized for the actions of himself and his government decades ago. The 69-year-old said he cannot walk or stand for a long period of time due to neuropathy and suffers from skin cancer, eye problems and diabetes.
"Had I known 42 years ago how dangerous these chemicals were and what they were going to do to me, my men and citizens and villagers around the area," House said, "I'm afraid I would have refused the order to spray them."
"We have already begun an effort to release the records and unveil the truth," Steward said. "Answers must be given."
During two-day inspection from Tuesday and Wednesday, the two veterans and the opposition members of the parliamentary committee on environment will travel to the southern parts of the demilitarized zone and Camp Carroll to find the spots where they claimed they buried the chemicals, officials said.
"One reason why I came to Korea is to help with a speedy investigation into the truth of the matter regarding my burial of the Agent Orange drums at Camp Carroll," House said. "If the U.S. military continues to fail to come up with the military documents relating the storage and burial of the Agent Orange drums in South Korea, then I intend to press the U.S. Congress to conduct an independent investigation on this issue."
The U.S. military and South Korean authorities conducted a joint on-site investigation last month, though they failed to find any signs of metal drums under the helipad at Camp Carroll, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul. The U.S. military in South Korea has since conceded that the burial took place but said that the waste was removed from the country in the 1970s.
The U.S. military said it was informed that House visited South Korea in his private capacity, adding it hopes to host him at the inspection site for more details.
"We look forward to the opportunity to host him at Camp Carroll and learn any additional details he might have for our ongoing joint investigation into his claims," the U.S. Eighth Army said in a statement. "We are committed to conducting a thorough, transparent and complete investigation." (Yonhap)