As a young man, Ralph DeSanto Jr. took apart the valves in front of him, valves that had come
from C-123 aircraft that had repeatedly sprayed Agent Orange over Vietnam.
Each time he popped a rubber seal, he said, a tiny plume of red dust rose up. Inside each valve
was the crystallized chemical from the herbicide that was widely deployed to kill the vegetation
that concealed the enemy in the jungles and forests during the Vietnam War.
DeSanto never once thought that he should be worried, that he may be putting himself in danger,
that with every touch of those airplane parts or with any swipe of residue he might have been
increasing his risk for diseases.
But pressure is increasing by the day for the Veterans Administration to heed its own
commissioned report released in January by the Institute of Medicine that said flight and
maintenance crews such as the one that DeSanto was part of were exposed to high levels of dioxin.
Advocates say the VA should expand the list of those eligible to receive benefits and care for
Agent Orange-related claims to include them.
Until now, because those crew members were Air Force reservists and not classified as
active-duty personnel, the VA has denied them veteran status and has not allowed their claims to
any Agent Orange-related illnesses.