Robert A. Potts most remembers the smell on many of the C-123 cargo planes that had sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange over Vietnam.
The 73-year-old Moraine man never rode the planes over southeast Asia. The former Air Force reservist who was stationed at Rickenbacher Air National Guard Base near Columbus still has hand-written meticulous flight logs he said show he spent hundreds of hours flying in the former “spray birds” for eight years over the United States.
Years later, working as a Russian translator at the Foreign Technology Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, he said he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, a condition he suspects was caused from his exposure to the Agent Orange residue on the planes.
“You could smell the chemical when we first got them,” he said. “That stuff, I guess, had seeped into the floor of the airplane. I had a friend of mine, he would come home (and) his flight suit smelled so bad his wife would put it in the garage,” said Potts, who flew on the planes as a loadmaster between 1972 to 1980.
“We knew when we got those airplanes, because they stank so bad, we knew they were former spray birds. But of course, we never thought of it being dangerous at the time. They were just airplanes that we flew on.”
Potts’ Agent Orange disability claim was rejected by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2002 on grounds that he didn’t serve in Vietnam. But a report issued earlier this year gave new life to a cause championed by him and others.
The January report by the Institute of Medicine concludes that some reservists who never went to Vietnam still encountered exposures to Agent Orange-related dioxins at levels in excess of international guidelines.
Report: Health ‘adversely affected’
An estimated 1,500 to 2,100 reservists may have flown on the C-123 spray planes in the United States, according to the report by the institute, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences that was commissioned by the VA to report on the reservists’ Agent Orange exposure.
After they were returned from Vietnam, the C-123 “Providers,” as they were nicknamed, were assigned to cargo and aeromedical evacuation units in the Air Force Reserve at Rickenbacker, Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts and the Pittsburgh IAP Reserve Station in Pennsylvania.
“The available information supports the expectation that the health of some of the personnel was adversely affected by their service in the C-123s that had earlier been used to spray herbicides in Vietnam,” the institute’s report concludes.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has considered former C-123 reservists’ Agent Orange residue claims on a case-by-case basis. Claimants point out that the health risks are well documented yet airmen who flew in the United States were not given the same “presumptive” exposure eligibility for VA benefits that Vietnam veterans have for serving on the ground or inland waterways during the war.
VA announcements on the issue were scheduled most recently this month, but then postponed without explanation from the VA.
But at a press conference Friday at the Dayton VA Medical Center, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said an announcement was “imminent” and “very soon” in response to a question from this newspaper.
“The issue frankly is how to execute once the announcement is made,” he said. “For whatever reasons, it’s very hard to find the people who worked on or flew those C-123s and we want to make sure when we announce we can have perfect clarity on the next steps for those veterans who served with C-123s that sprayed Agent Orange.”
The Institute of Medicine report backed up others that found long-term concerns about the approximately 30 spray planes brought back to the United States after they were flown in the defoliant program Operation Ranch Hand in Vietnam. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded swab samples taken on some C-123s in 1994 were 182 times higher for dioxin than guidelines set by the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, according to the publication Military Times.
One clue to the level of contamination aboard the planes was culled from inside a C-123K, nicknamed Patches, on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, records show. The plane was decontaminated before it was displayed inside the museum beginning in 2003.
A push for benefits
Wesley T. Carter, president of the C-123 Veterans Association, has led the push for four years to get the VA to provide benefits to C-123 reservists. The retired Air Force major and former C-123 medical services officer viewed the Institute of Medicine report as a victory for the former airmen in their battle with the VA.
“The (VA) secretary is called on by the Agent Orange Act to recognize and care for veterans exposed to this deadly toxin,” he said in an interview. “The VA has known of this situation for many years, has had all of the scientific and medical information necessary to reach the decision they’re obliged to reach by the Agent Orange Act, but for some reason has failed us yet again.
“How many years must men and women who are already ill wait?”
Under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam were presumed to have exposure to herbicides. Under VA guidelines, they may qualify for disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange, such as diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and prostate and respiratory cancers, among other ailments.
Carter, 68, was initially encouraged by the announcement the VA would address the issue, but has been disappointed with the federal agency’s repeated postponements.
“It’s a very confusing situation with mixed signals,” he said. “As it stands right now, those veterans are still outside the VA hospital with their fingers on the doorbell and the door’s still locked. A delay of weeks and months is still unacceptable and painful.”
The former reservist who flew aboard the planes at Westover Air Reserve Base said he filed an Agent Orange-related claim with the VA in 2011, and was denied. He has appealed.
Carter receives full VA disability benefits because he suffered spinal injuries in the first Gulf War when he fell off a truck on a flight line. He said he filed the Agent Orange claim to determine what was happening to his fellow airmen.
“We’ve identified a number of deaths from folks who put in claims and were denied,” said Carter, who lives in Fort Collins, Colo.
Carter, who has cancer and heart disease, can’t say for sure his exposure to Agent Orange residue on the planes caused his medical problems, but he noted the increased risk of health ailments caused from exposure.
The VA has not tracked how many former C-123 reservists have applied for disability benefits, VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said in an email, “but we are aware of a few claims that have been decided on a case-by-case basis.”
One former reservist, Lt. Col. Paul A. Bailey, a close friend to Carter’s, was granted VA benefits for exposure to Agent Orange residue aboard the planes in August 2013, The Washington Post has reported. Bailey died of cancer in October 2013.
Lawmakers want changes
Former reservists aren’t the only ones calling for policy changes from the VA.
Six senators — led by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon — sent a letter in February to McDonald asking the federal agency to give the C-123 veterans who flew or worked on the planes the same presumption of exposure as Vietnam veterans.
The lawmakers cited the institute’s January report in their letter, which said C-123 veterans “were exposed to toxic levels of Agent Orange and other herbicides as a result of the failure to adequately sterilize the aircraft.”
The senators also cited multiple Air Force reports dating to 1979 that showed the planes were contaminated, numerous expert opinions inside and outside the government that suggested personnel were exposed to Agent Orange, and a judge’s order stopping the resale of the planes because they were “a danger to the public health,” the lawmakers’ letter said.
Every two years, the VA contracts with the institute to review evidence of the long-term health effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans, the agency said. This year’s report specifically addressed the issue with the reservists who flew aboard the C-123s in the United States.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, brought up the issue of Agent Orange exposures when McDonald appeared at a Senate hearing last month. According to a transcript, McDonald told Brown then a top VA official was due to make an announcement in about a week.
“Whether service members were exposed to Agent Orange as they flew missions in Southeast Asia, on ships that transported the chemicals to Vietnam, or years later while flying planes that were contaminated, they all deserve the same access to VA benefits,” Brown said in a written statement to this newspaper.
Bessie Griseto, a VA spokeswoman, said in an email “any veteran may file a claim for disability compensation for health problems they believe are related to exposure to Agent Orange residue on post-Vietnam C-123 airplanes. VA decides these claims on a case-by-case basis. For example, this would depend on the veteran, the extent of their service, what type of benefits they’ve applied for and what conditions they’re claiming. No case is the same.”
Ed Kienle, 73, of Wilmington, was a crew chief and flight mechanic who worked on the planes as a full-time reservist at Rickenbacker. Not every plane with the unit sprayed the defoliant, but those that did stood out, according to Kienle.
“Those airplanes had their own smell,” he said. “That residue never goes away. Like they say, that orange smell is with them all the time. Some of them were worse than others.”
Kienle is not certain his skin cancer is related to his work on the planes and has not filed an Agent Orange-related claim with the VA.
Potts says he will refile if the VA changes its rules. His unit, the 302nd Tactical Airlift Wing, also occasionally flew mosquito-spraying missions, he said. The former airman said he flew on a one-week mission using the pesticide malathion to kill mosquitoes in Panama, and on another mission for a couple of days in a location he could not recall.
A clue at the museum
Carter, who began his battle with the VA in 2011, faults the Air Force for not informing crew members that there were health concerns related to the contaminated C123s for years.
Officials’ search for answers led to tests on three C-123 aircraft with wipe samples to detect dioxin contamination in the 1990s and about a decade ago, according to records.
One of those planes was the C-123K that carried the “Patches” nickname. The plane was brought to the Air Force museum in June 1980.
Air Force bio-environmental engineers found no contamination at the time, but subsequent tests in 1995 revealed four positive samples for dioxin, according to Rob Bardua, a museum spokesman.
The plane had been on display in the museum’s outdoor air park from 1981 to 1994. The positive tests were revealed after the Air Force hired a private bio-environmental firm to retest Patches prior to a planned restoration of the plane, Bardua said.
The plane was decontaminated, cleared for display in 1997, and moved back to the air park. The plane, which has Purple Hearts painted on its side for crew members wounded on low-level flights over Vietnam, was towed indoors to the museum’s Southeast Asia War gallery in 2003.