Monday, June 30, 2014

Plagued by diseases, aging fliers find VA unwilling to help
WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, Richard Matte has suffered through a series of grave illnesses. The 70-year-old from Chicopee has a transplanted heart. He’s been treated for bladder cancer, lung cancer, and nerve disorders.
But it wasn’t until 2011 that the retired master sergeant learned he and fellow veterans of the Air Force Reserve’s 731st Tactical Airlift Squadron in Westover might have been exposed to traces of Agent Orange. Matte quickly looked up ailments designated by the Department of Veterans Affairs as linked to contact with the deadly herbicide.
“I'm sitting here thinking, ‘Jeez, I got about 10 of these myself,’ ” Matte, who recently had his left leg amputated, recalled in an interview.

Agent Orange exposure
But unlike hundreds of thousands of other veterans who have been compensated by the VA for Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War, Matte never served in Southeast Asia or directly handled the deadly substance. The C-123 Provider cargo planes he crewed had been used to dump thousands of canisters of the toxin over Vietnam, before being brought home to Westover and used for domestic missions from 1972 to 1982.
It turns out those old planes were contaminated with toxic residue. Once they were retired for good, the Air Force even cordoned them off at a remote desert airstrip in Arizona and treated them as hazardous waste.
Despite growing evidence that the fliers were exposed to the poison, the VA is denying claims made by Matte and other veterans from the 731st Tactical Airlift Squadron, saying they are not eligible for special Agent Orange-related benefits mandated by Congress — health care as well as disability and survivor benefits.

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