Retired Air Force Reserve Maj. Wes Carter almost didn’t travel to Washington D.C. this month where, to his surprise, he heard an independent panel of scientists verify what he had dogged the Air Force and Department of Veterans Affairs about for almost four years.
The Institute of Medicine said Carter and up to 2,100 other former reserve air crewmen and maintainers of C-123 aircraft, flown for a decade after the Vietnam War, were indeed exposed to toxic residue from Agent Orange herbicide sprayed from some of the same aircraft during the war.
The IOM also found it plausible that exposure “exceeded health guidelines for workers in enclosed settings. Thus, some reservists quite likely experienced non-trivial increases in their risks of adverse health outcomes.”
|Retired Air Force Reserve Maj. Wes Carter|
Dr. Ralph L. Erickson, VA director of Pre-9/11-Era Post-Deployment Health, said Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson and other senior staff were briefed on IOM findings before public release. A “technical work group” of scientists, physicians and experts on VA regulations and benefits held the first of a series of meetings to review and interpret the report and make recommendations to VA Secretary Bob McDonald.
Erickson noted it was VA that ordered the IOM study and it welcomes the findings “because the better we understand environmental issues, the better we’re able to care for these veterans.”
The IOM findings reflect a deeper understanding of how dioxin contamination on interior surfaces of these aircraft behaved, he said.
“Though we thought before — and this certainly was the Air Force position — that a dry residue was rock solid and it wasn’t going anywhere and it wouldn’t be available to contaminate a crew member, there’s now science available that leads us to understand that, in fact, there is this dynamic equilibrium of the solid residue with the air above the residue…”
Bottom line, it seems, is the VA accepts the possibility that Agent Orange residue could have become airborne and harmed reservists.
Carter said he found VA and Air Force officials more close-minded during a four-year slough to try to win Agent Orange-related care and disability compensation for crews and maintainers who were assigned to reserve squadrons that operated at three bases from 1972 to 1982.
Ill, fatigued and in chronic pain, Carter said he fell victim to dark moments after IOM last fall delayed release of its report by three months. Carter worried that if IOM decided against the crewmen and their claims, he might not be strong enough to continue the fight.
Since 2011, Carter has led an intense bureaucratic battle with his parent service and VA, writing scores of letters, compiling scientific records and internal reports from multiple agencies, contacting news media, creating a C-123 Veterans Association website and blog to explain what the latest evidence showed and how former crewmen were suffering, and posting all documents online for scientists and the public to study.
Carter, now 68, did all this having nothing to gain personally. He has been rated 100-percent disabled since 1990 when he suffered spinal injuries in a fall off an Army truck on the last day of the Persian Gulf War.
But Carter also has three illnesses tied to Agent Orange.