In a complaint to the Air Force inspector general, a retired officer alleges health officials have known since at least 1994 of Agent Orange contamination aboard C-123 aircraft flown by reserve squadrons for a decade after the Vietnam War, and failed to warn of the health risks.
After the Air Force stopped using UC-123K Provider aircraft to spray herbicide on the jungles of Vietnam, some of those aircraft, their spray tanks removed, were reassigned in 1972 at three stateside bases.
For the next decade Air Force reservists flew and maintained them. Last month, one of the post-war crewmen, disabled retiree Maj. Wesley T. Carter, 64, of McMinnville, Ore., had a heart attack requiring surgery, and also learned that he has prostate cancer.
A medical service officer, Carter said he thought about the hours he spent aboard foul-smelling C-123 “spray birds” after the war, flying out of Westover Air Force Base, Mass. He searched online for reports of lingering Agent Orange contamination on the planes assigned Reserve missions until 1982.
What Carter found alarmed him and he contacted crewmen from his squadron. The first five he reached had prostate cancer, Carter said. He heard of others who had died, most from more diseases that Department of Veterans Affairs presumes, at least for veterans of Vietnam, were caused by Agent Orange exposure.
Carter started a blog, www.c123kcancer.blogspot.com, with links to reports and memos referencing dioxin contamination aboard C-123s flown by reservists after the war from Westover, Pittsburgh, Pa., Air Reserve Base and Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio.
One document, Carter said, deals with a famous C-123, nicknamed “Patches” during the war because it was hit so often by enemy fire. Patches was one of three C-123s, among 16 aircraft of the 731st Tactical Airlift Squadron, known to have sprayed herbicide during the war.
A 1994 report revealed that before Patches was put on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, an analysis found that it was “heavily contaminated with PCDD,” or polychlorinated dibenzodioxin, a human carcinogen.
Work crews that prepared Patches for display wore hazardous material suits and respirators, and the public would not be allowed to touch it. Yet Carter and crews had flown it often.
By filing an IG complaint, Carter wants the Air Force to explain why, after learning C-123s flown by reservists were toxic, the service did not warn crews of their exposure and health risks.
Retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. John O. Harris of Mashpee, Mass., flew 2,700 hours as a C-123 command pilot for the 731st, from 1973 to 1981. Almost 400 of those hours were in Patches or one of the other squadron aircraft that had sprayed in Vietnam. Harris, 67, has diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, both conditions on VA’s list of 14 Agent Orange presumptive diseases.
“We knew it was there,” Harris said of residual herbicide on some C-123 aircraft. “You could smell it on a hot day, or a cold day when the heaters were running. You could smell it so bad you couldn’t stand it.”
Harris said he often flew with cockpit windows open. He compares the smell to wasp or roach spray. Vietnam vets in the squadron identified it as Agent Orange, Harris said. But no one then understood the dangers of compounds used in the war.
Neither Harris nor Carter served on the ground in Vietnam, but both believe reservists who flew or maintained these aircraft should be treated like Vietnam veterans with regard Agent Orange-related claims.
Several years ago Harris filed a claim for his diabetes, citing post-war exposure to Agent Orange. He provided flight logs listing hours aboard “spray bird” aircraft. Both his claim and his appeal were denied, Harris said, because he had not served in Vietnam.
Harris later remembered that, while flying F-4 Phantoms out of Thailand, he had a two-hour refueling stop at Da Nang. He recalled the guy he chatted with at the airfield that day, found him and supplied VA with his statement. Then, Harris qualified for disability pay.
“Two hours on the ground with no Agent Orange in sight trumped 11 years and 400 hours of definitive exposure flying spray UC-123s,” he said. Harris figures he caught a break. He has joined Carter’s quest to find colleagues and notify them of toxin exposure. They want to help others get VA care and compensation, as well as help spouses of colleagues who have died from these conditions get VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
Carter learned the government in 1996 stopped a contract to sell some C-123s because of contamination. Another report indicates Air Force struggled over how to dispose of the aircraft, worried that burying them could contaminate the ground.
An Air Force spokesman, Jonathan Stock, said the service “is going to look into these claims” but can’t make any immediate comment. VA Press Secretary Josh Taylor said VA will “carefully review this matter.”
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