In the 1960s, Ernie Rivers taught Navy flight students at the Pensacola Naval Air Station how to live off the land if their plane was downed. He was the officer in charge of the survival unit, overseeing 30 to 35
instructors, who taught more than 100 men a week how to survive with only a compass, map, and a hunting knife. Every week groups of students would camp for three days, using different sites on Eglin Air Force Base Reservation in Florida.
When the winds and clouds were right, Rivers and his men would watch planes pass overhead, clouds of spray coming from them. Several times he and his men were sprayed. “I’d say, ‘At least we don’t have to use bug repellant,’” he noted, laughing, during an interview. That was a big plus, they thought, for them as well as Army Rangers who were also training out in the bayous of the Florida panhandle, where mosquitoes and other bugs could make life miserable.
Rivers and the students thought they were watching the Air Force spray DDT to kill mosquitoes. What was actually being sprayed, he said, was Agent Orange. Documents show that gallons of the defoliants Agent
Orange, Agent Purple, and Agent White were sprayed at Eglin. In fact, according to officials overseeing the program, the Air Force sprayed a test area on the base with more dioxin than any similar area in Vietnam. The fact that Agent Orange was sprayed in Florida for eight years was not widely known then or even today. Only in the last several years has the documentation on the spraying been made publicly available by Alvin Young, an Air Force scientist for more than 15 years at Eglin. Young oversaw a huge research project evaluating how massive spraying of Agent Orange at the Florida air force base affected its soil, water, plants, fish, and animals.