Steve House can’t stop thinking about the day in 1978 when he says he helped bury toxic Agent Orange at a US military base in South Korea, hauling rusting drums to a ditch from a warehouse that soldiers called “voodoo land.”
After decades of silence and countless hours of suffering that he links to exposure to the dangerous herbicide, House is one of three former US soldiers whose accounts have sparked a joint US-South Korean investigation.
The allegations have set off a media firestorm in South Korea, fueling daily TV news shows, front-page newspaper stories and worries among people near the base about groundwater safety, cancer and drops in land prices.
House claims that soldiers at Camp Carroll in the south took a large number of 55-gallon (208 liters) drums fragile with rust and stamped with the words “Agent Compound Orange,” from the mysterious, restricted warehouse and carried them over crisp dead grass into a deep ditch the length of a soccer field.
“This is a burden I’ve carried around for 35 years,” House, 54, said in a phone interview from his home in Apache Junction, Arizona. “It’s bugging the hell out of me. I don’t want to take this to my grave.”
Two other former soldiers who served with House also said in interviews with KPHO-TV in Arizona, which first reported the claims, that they buried the toxic chemical; one estimated 250 drums.
Still sensitive to massive anti-US demonstrations in South Korea in recent years, US officials have responded with remarkable speed.
Since the claims surfaced in the middle of last month, the US military has acknowledged that it buried many drums of herbicide and other chemicals at the base in 1978. The chemicals were then dug up and disposed of somewhere away from the base. However, officials are still trying to find out where they were taken and whether Agent Orange was included in the burial.
The US is jointly investigating the Camp Carroll site with South Korea, and on Thursday, US and South Korean officials invited the media to watch a search for buried objects using ground-penetrating radar. Officials said the results must still be interpreted.
“Our analysis will be deliberate, thorough and transparent,” Eighth Army Commander Lieutenant General John Johnson said in a statement. “We want to assure ourselves and the Americans and [South] Koreans on and around Camp Carroll that we are taking the right steps to safeguard their health and safety.”
The quick action by the US military and the intense South Korean media interest reflect the often tense relationship South Koreans have with the 28,500 US troops stationed to help deter North Korean aggression.
Liberals have often pushed for Seoul to assert its independence from ally Washington, and anti-US sentiment has previously spurred massive demonstrations.
When soldiers involved in a 2002 traffic accident that killed two schoolgirls were exonerated, weeks of rage helped former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun win a come-from-behind election victory with a pledge not to “kowtow” to Washington.
South Korean news organizations have generally praised the US response this time. However, the swift investigation also “reflects the severity of the problem,” the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper said in an editorial.
“Both allies must keep in mind that any effort to distort or cover up the truth will only exacerbate the situation,” it said.