Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Westover Vets Fight For Agent Orange Benefits

Air Force Lt. Col. Aaron Olmsted in a C-123
by Lisa Chedeke
In the years since they flew together out of Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts in the post-Vietnam War era, Wes Carter and Paul Bailey have stayed in close touch, swapping information about families, jobs, and their former crewmates in the 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.

This year, the conversation took a strange turn: Bailey, who lives in New Hampshire, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February. Two months later, Carter, a former Massachusetts resident who now lives in Oregon, got the same diagnosis.

Curious about the coincidence, the two men began checking around with members of their Air Force Reserve squadron – particularly those who had flown the C-123 Provider, a plane that was used to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and then was reassigned to domestic missions at Westover and two other U.S. bases.

Carter was stunned: the first five crewmen he called had prostate cancer or heart disease.

The sixth man he tried had died.

Since then, he and Bailey have found dozens more former Westover reservists who are sick – with prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease, peripheral neuropathy and other illnesses connected to exposure to Agent Orange [AO]. In just a few months, they have compiled a list of close to 40 of their fellow pilots, medical technicians, maintenance workers and flight engineers who are sick or have died of such illnesses, many of them from Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“I’ve had trouble finding guys who don’t have AO-related illnesses,” said Carter, who also suffers from heart disease.

Now, Carter and Bailey are spearheading an effort to get the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize that the crews who manned the “spray planes” stateside from 1972 to 1982 were exposed to lingering Agent Orange contamination and should receive compensation for their illnesses, as their fellow veterans who served in Vietnam do.

Under current policy, veterans must have set foot in Vietnam to be eligible for compensation for exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide sprayed in the jungles to destroy foliage and crops. Diseases related to exposure to Agent Orange include prostate cancer, neuropathy, ischemic heart disease, diabetes mellitus and respiratory cancers.

“For years, for many hundreds of hours, we flew that aircraft,” Carter said. “We ate in it. We worked in it. We fixed it. We slept in it… Most of us total thousands of hours inside the fuselage—inside that area the Air Force considers, even 25 years after the aircraft were retired, to be contaminated.”

In recent complaints to the Air Force Inspector General, the chief of the Air Force Reserve, the Institute of Medicine and other officials, Carter has cited documents showing that the Air Force knew, at least since 1994, of Agent Orange contamination aboard C-123 aircraft flown at Westover and other bases — but failed to warn personnel of the health risks.

Among the documents is a 1994 Air Force report that found one of the airplanes, known as Patches, was “heavily contaminated” with dioxins. Tests on other planes showed similar contamination, records show. In a 2000 legal brief, the General Services Administration argued that the proposed sale of C-123s to a private buyer should be canceled, dubbing the planes “extremely hazardous” and saying their release would carry “the risk of dioxin contamination to the general public.”

In a 1996 internal memo, an official in the Air Force Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, Directorate of Environmental Law, had expressed similar concerns about the possibly contaminated aircraft being sold to third parties, but said: “I do not believe we should alert anyone outside of official channels of this potential problem until we fully determine its extent.”

So far, attempts by Westover reservists to claim veterans’ benefits linked to Agent Orange exposure on C-123s have been stymied.


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