WASHINGTON — Nearly three dozen rugged C-123 transport planes formed the backbone of the U.S. military’s campaign to spray Agent Orange over jungles hiding enemy soldiers during the Vietnam War. And many of the troops who served in the conflict were compensated for diseases associated with their exposure to the toxic defoliant.
But after the war, some of the planes were used on cargo missions in the United States. Now a bitter fight has sprung up over whether those in the military who worked, ate and slept in the planes after the war also should be compensated. Two U.S. senators are now questioning the Department of Veterans Affairs’ assertions that any postwar contamination on the planes was not high enough to be linked to disease.
Complicating the debate is that few of the planes remain to be tested. In 2010, the Air Force destroyed 18 of the Vietnam-era aircraft in part because of concerns about potential liability for Agent Orange, according to Air Force memos documenting the destruction.
Citing tests done on some of the aircraft in the 1990s, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., have asked the VA’s Office of Inspector General to review whether the department is “inappropriately” denying disability compensation to veterans who claim they were sickened by postwar contamination.
“It appears that [the VA] does, in fact, plan to deny any C-123 claims regardless of the evidence submitted in a particular case,” the senators wrote. The letter noted that a group of outside experts called the VA’s scientific conclusions “seriously flawed.”
The Air Force said the planes’ destruction was handled properly.
“Because of the potential stigma associated with these aircraft, the Air Force ensured that the recycling of the aircraft was accomplished completely and that the metal was not stored improperly or abandoned prior to being smelted,” an Air Force statement said.
The C-123s were used to spray Agent Orange from 1962 to 1971 as part of Operation Ranch Hand. After the war, about 1,500 Air National Guard and Reserve crew members flew the planes on cargo missions in the United States until the last aircraft were retired in 1982.
The Air Force aborted plans to sell some of the planes in 1996, after evidence surfaced that 18 of them might still be contaminated with TCDD dioxin, a carcinogen associated with Agent Orange, according to Air Force documents and papers filed with the General Services Administration’s Board of Contract Appeals. The planes were quarantined instead in Arizona at a storage facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, nicknamed “the Boneyard.”
The Air Force did not notify the post-Vietnam crews or Boneyard employees of the potential risk, Air Force documents said.
Order to destroy aircraft
When tests on four of the quarantined planes in 2009 showed little or no remaining dioxin, the Air Force decided it was safe to destroy the aircraft.
Officials at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, which oversaw the planes, approved a consultant’s recommendation in 2009 to “dispose of/recycle the 18 UC-123K ‘Agent Orange’ aircraft as soon as possible to avoid further risk from media publicity, litigation, and liability for presumptive compensation,” according to a base memo in August 2009.
“The longer this issue remains unresolved, the greater the likelihood of outside press reporting on yet another ‘Agent Orange Controversy,’” consultant Alvin Young wrote in a report.
Base officials recommended the aircraft be “shredded into cell phone-size pieces” and melted. “Smelting is necessary for these 18 aircraft so the Air Force will no longer be liable for ‘presumptive compensation’ claims to anyone who ever works around this ‘Agent Orange’ metal,” an Air Force memo said in 2009.
In 2010, the aircraft were torn apart by heavy machinery, melted and poured into blocks.
“The toxic aircraft had to be eliminated,” said Wes Carter, a retired Air Force major who served aboard C-123s as a medical service officer in the United States for a decade. “The right thing to do would have included telling the veterans of the exposures so that health and well-being as well as rights to seek veterans benefits would all be protected.”
An Air Force review last year concluded that “given the absence of a clear finding of potential harm,” it was not necessary to notify the crews.
Carter, 66, had potentially lethal prostate cancer diagnosed in 2011. His doctor, Mark Garzotto, director of urologic oncology at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, wrote in February that the cancer is “likely related to your exposure [to] Agent Orange.”
But the VA rejected compensation claims filed by Carter and other veterans who served on the aircraft after the war, saying their exposure to Agent Orange was too limited to connect to the diseases.
The VA is committed to reviewing claims on “a case-by-case basis,” the department said in a statement. “VA does not have a ‘blanket policy’ for denying claims” filed by postwar C-123 veterans, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki wrote Burr, the senator, in June.
Under federal law since 1991, the VA has granted the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange to any member of the military who served in Vietnam during the war. Some 260,000 cases have been filed since 2010, helping to fuel the backlog of disability claims facing the VA.
By 2009, the VA agreed to compensate veterans who could show they were exposed to the defoliant during wartime testing in the United States.
New class of veterans
The C-123 aircraft cases might open up claims for postwar service, as well, according to Young, the Agent Orange consultant who advised the Air Force.
“What this means is that 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,” Young wrote in a June 2009 memo to Hill AFB.
A retired Air Force colonel and former professor of environmental toxicology at Oklahoma State, Young frequently serves as a consultant on Agent Orange for the Defense Department. Young said in an interview that the decision to destroy the planes “had nothing to do with claims. There was never any destruction of evidence.”
Carter, an Oregon resident, and his comrades in the C-123 Veterans Association said postwar crews should be eligible for the same compensation for Agent Orange provided to those who served in Vietnam. He filed complaints with the Air Force and VA, and collected many documents via Freedom of Information requests, which he provided to The Washington Post and posted online.