The four-year battle for medical benefits waged by Westover Air
Reserve veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange while flying C-123
planes after the Vietnam War could be over by the end of the month.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald said
he plans to make an announcement within a few weeks about care for the
crews who flew the twin-propeller driven C-123 Providers after many were
used to spray the chemical over the Vietnam countryside to ruin crops
and defoliate trees, a department spokeswoman said.
"VA officials have engaged in a collaborative conversation with key
stakeholders, including veterans' service organizations and
Congressional staff, to discuss existing legal authorities and the steps
needed to authorize benefits for all Reserve personnel who had
sustained contact with the contaminated aircraft and developed one of
the covered Agent Orange presumptive conditions. We will continue to
work with Congress on this important matter to provide our Veterans with
the benefits they have earned and deserve," a spokeswoman for the
Department of Veterans Affairs said in writing.
At least 11 of the 16 planes used at Westover Air Reserve Base between 1972 to 1982 at Westover are known to be former Agent Orange spray planes.
Some of them were tested a decade after they were retired and results
showed at least one used at Westover was "highly contaminated."
The C-123 planes were also sent to the Pittsburgh Air National Guard Base and Rickenbacker Air National Base in Ohio.
Veterans did not learn that the planes were contaminated until about
four years ago when Retired Air Force Maj. Wesley T. Carter, now of
Colorado, started requesting reams of documents through the federal
Freedom of Information Act after he and a number of fellow reservists
started falling ill with multiple cancers, heart disease and other
illnesses known to be caused by dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent
The reservists have been fighting for the same benefits that people
who served in Vietnam receive. Under federal law anyone who spent any
time in Vietnam, even if it was only a day, is presumed to be exposed to
Agent Orange and eligible for full medical benefits and some disability
benefits if they fall ill with one of the diseases caused by dioxin.
For several years the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Air Force
have refused to grant the benefits, saying the reservists could not be
exposed to dioxin from dried Agent Orange. That changed in January when
the Institute of Medicine,
an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, released a study saying the
veterans were made ill from being exposed to Agent Orange.
"The Committee states with confidence that the AF (Air Force)
Reservists were exposed when working in the ORH C-123s (used in Vietnam)
and so experienced some increase in their risk of a variety of adverse
responses," the study said.
It estimated 2,000 to 2,500 pilots, loadmasters, mechanics, medical
personnel and others who worked on the C-123s were exposed. A number of
them however, including Carter, are already eligible for the benefits
because they served in Vietnam or through other means.
A number of veterans organizations, including the Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Veterans of Foreign Wars have been lobbying to support the C-123 veterans.
In February six senators,
including Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts signed a strongly-worded to
the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to show
their support. The six have followed that up recently demanding quick
action from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.