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.
One of the veterans who tried was Aaron Olmsted of Ellington, CT, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who flew the C-123. Olmsted, 60, was killed in a plane crash in Pennsylvania in May, four years after he had lost a battle with the Board of Veterans Appeals to prove that he was sick from exposure to Agent Orange.
While Olmsted had logged hundreds of hours piloting C-123s at Westover, the veterans’ appeals board in 2007 rejected his claim that his diabetes mellitus was connected to Agent Orange exposure.
“The Board acknowledges that the veteran maintains he was exposed to Agent Orange while flying aircraft from 1979 to 1982 in the Air Force Reserves because the aircraft were used to spray Agent Orange in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 and that he was thus exposed to Agent Orange residue,” Veterans Law Judge Steven L. Cohn wrote in dismissing Olmsted’s claim.
“[But] the veteran has not submitted any evidence substantiating his contention that there was any residual Agent Orange material on the aircraft he served on. His contention, standing alone, is not sufficient to show he had actual exposure to Agent Orange.”
Olmsted’s widow, Diane, said she was frustrated that the VA had denied her husband’s appeal on the grounds that he had not provided specific tail numbers of the C-123s he flew. He flew Patches and other planes that were found to be contaminated with dioxins, flight records and photographs show.
“I don’t understand why they would put him through this, when it was clear he flew contaminated planes,” she said. “Why would they turn their backs on him after he had served his country so long and so well? I feel like it’s such an injustice.”
She said federal aviation officials are now investigating whether her husband had a medical crisis that caused the small plane he was piloting to crash this spring. “We always joked he could have landed a refrigerator with wings,” she said. “The plane was fine, the weather was good – [the crash] makes no sense.”
Odd Smells, Stinging Eyes
Records show that some C-123 planes were held in quarantine storage in recent years, and then disposed of by shredding and smelting in 2010. In June 2009, an Agent Orange consultant to the Secretary of Defense had lobbied for the “immediate destruction” of the planes, in part to avoid attracting media attention to the health claims of stateside veterans.
“A whole new class of veterans may claim that their exposure was due to the fact they were members of aircrews or mechanics associated with the contaminated aircraft that returned from Vietnam,” the consultant, Dr. Alvin L. Young, wrote in the June 26, 2009, memo.
Carter, Bailey and their fellow reservists want the Air Force to explain why it never warned former crew members of their exposure and the possible health consequences, even as tests confirmed the presence of dioxins in the planes. Work crews that prepared Patches for display in a museum were instructed in a 1994 memo to wear hazardous material suits and respirators—yet Carter, Olmsted and others had flown in the plane often, without protection.
Carter and Bailey both recall the strange chemical smell of the C-123s and the stinging in their eyes and mouths – at the time, inexplicable sensations.
“I was always pretty sick on the airplanes – I ended up throwing up a lot,” said Bailey, 65, who is undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. “I never knew why. Now it makes sense.”
The VA press office did not respond to an inquiry from C-HIT. In a July letter to Carter, staff members of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr reported that VA officials “said they have received hundreds, if not thousands, of claims for ‘secondary’ exposure over the years [but] that the available science does not support the link between health issues and flying on an aircraft which was previously exposed to Agent Orange.”
Connecticut state veterans’ affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz, a former Air Force flight nurse who has studied the effects of Agent Orange on women veterans who served in Vietnam, said she was hopeful that the VA would re-think its stance on stateside Agent Orange exposure.
“It seems to me that there is sufficient evidence to document individual exposure by comparing a crew member’s flight logbook with the tail numbers of the aircraft,” she said. “I am hopeful that when all of the evidence is submitted to Secretary of Veterans Affairs [Eric] Shinseki, he will use the same fairness, clarity and logic that he has exercised in his other decisions.”
She applauded Shinseki’s decision to include three new diseases—Parkinson’s Disease, chronic b-cell leukemia and ischemic heart disease—in the presumptive category for Agent Orange exposure. “We have not heard the final word on this issue,” she said.
Vietnam Veterans of America [VVA], which lobbies for veterans, has begun researching the Westover claims and expects to file a petition with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, asking that the stateside reservists who flew in contaminated C-123 planes get the same “presumptive exposure” status as their Vietnam-based counterparts, said Rick Weidman, VVA’s executive director for policy and government affairs.
“We’re very supportive of the effort this group of reservists is making to substantiate their claims,” Weidman said. “There are a lot of things we think the government should be doing that they’re not, and full disclosure of the harmful materials our troops were exposed to is one of those things.”
For her part, Diane Olmsted knows that a change in VA policy could take time – and will come too late for her husband.
As she watched her young grandchildren run around her house on a recent day, her thoughts turned away from bureaucratic battles, including the new appeal for VA benefits that she is pursuing.
“He was larger than life,” she said of her husband. “Now, he’s missing out on time with these beautiful grandkids.
That’s the part that is the hardest.”