31 July 2011

Open Letter to Chief Air Force Reserve, LtGen Stenner

25 July 2011

Lieutenant General Charles E. Stenner, Jr.
Chief, Air Force Reserve
Robins AFB, GA  31098

Dear General Stenner,

The year you graduated from the College of Wooster, the 731st Tactical Airlift Squadron and the 74th (now 439th) Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron started flying the Fairchild C-123K/UC-123K “Provider”, which until the previous year had been used in the Vietnam War for spraying Agent Orange. Our aircrews were exposed to the dioxin that remained on the airplanes. Please forgive this overly long letter bringing our situation to your attention to resolve for us. 

Please also consider that even the minutes you'd take to read this while seated in one of our dioxin-contaminated aircraft would have been hazardous to your health.

We didn’t know it then, although conversations started circulating among the veterans around 2007, but the planes remained heavily contaminated with Agent Orange and its deadly component, dioxide. Though dioxin is odorless, Agent Orange residue with the poison inside it and the dried stuff mixed in for the proper spray viscosity continued to make our aircraft stink to the point maintenance folks at Westover refused to allow certain former spray aircraft into base hangars, and occasionally missions had to be terminated due to crew illnesses and inability to tolerate the stench.

I watched a former paratrooper and qualified flight instructor (now Lieutenant Colonel) Paul Bailey, USAFR Retired, routinely become sickened from the stench in Patches and our other eleven tainted aircraft. Bailey would vomit within a few minutes of entering the aircraft, then continue his duties. Colonel Bailey now has prostate cancer that has spread to his lymph nodes, detected on his retirement physical. Colonel Bailey did not know he’d been exposed to Agent Orange. Or he'd have paid attention to his rising PSA numbers which he ignored instead.

Official Air Force awareness of our aircraft’s toxicity first began with the Air Force Museum having our plane Patches, Tail #362, checked out in 1994 by the Wright-Patterson bioenvironmental engineering folks before it was moved into the museum. That move halted immediately when the Armstrong Lab at Brooks AFB described the dioxin levels and described Patches as “heavily contaminated”, so Patches stayed outside until $57,000 had been spent by AFMC to decontaminate it enough to allow limited access as LtGen Hudson described to me.

This test was twelve years after we ourselves flew Patches to the museum, twelve years during which the aircraft’s dioxin was less intense due to its half-life on surfaces…dioxin levels which were so much more intense during the decade of our flying Patches and the other aircraft. The 731st cycled a total of 26 C-123K/UC-123K aircraft through its inventory during that decade, and we know now, from reports by Davis-Monthan and AFMC, that at least eight and more likely eleven of our aircraft remained contaminated with dioxin.

Further tests were done on the stored aircraft at the Boneyard, and every result was positive for presence of dioxin. But the problem for our Reserve aircrews began in 1996 with a memorandum from the Air Force Office of Environmental Law at AFMC recommending that the dioxin contamination “be kept within official channels only” and thus denied to us. While our exposure to the airplane’s dioxin was during the decade 1972-1982 and during a time when little was known about the dangers, the decision in 1996 not to alert us to having been exposed borders on criminal, under an employer’s duty to inform (OSHA, EPA, CDC all refer to it, although DOD is not affected where it opts not to be affected).

In fact, here in Oregon, it is criminal to have an employee exposed to hazardous substances and fail to notify that employee once the danger is identified. EPA, NIH and CDC have some thoughts on that as well.

But Oregon doesn’t have an Air Force Office of Environmental Law. Thus, aircrews like ours in the 731st continued our service, some retired, some left for other interests when their tours of duty concluded…but none of us were alerted to pay attention to our PSA numbers, or to do anything relative to the toxin we’d been exposed to. I’m grateful to the Toxicity Department of the Oregon Health Sciences University which in May 2011 analyzed the Air Force test data, confirmed their results, and concluded that exposure of the aircrews to dioxin was “most likely.

We flew these airplanes because it was our voluntary duty to which the Air Force assigned us…and because we loved them, despite their stink, reciprocating P&W R2800 engines busting jugs all the time, significantly sub-sonic airspeed and being out-paced by Cessna 150s, lousy paint job, too hot/too cold climate control, little bitty porta-potty, no MP3 player, no iPad recharger, un-glass cockpit, navigation by wet finger and sextant, E6B guessing and concrete OMNI, no autopilot, a pee-tube way in the back, av-gas shortages, snickering from C-130 crews, etc. Sir, I was a Stan/Eval flight examiner, charged by the United States Air Force with being the most expert, most qualified, most motivated, most dependable, most everything I could possibly be relative to this weapon system relative to my AFSC…but the Air Force Office of Environmental Law decided it was inappropriate to alert me as the responsible expert in my AFSC and this aircraft about such an important safety and health issue, nor did it inform our wing surgeon, the wonderful late Colonel Warner Jones, who died of Agent Orange-related ALS. Nor our squadron commanders, nor the wing vice commander, Lou Paskovitch who also died of ALS. Nobody.

And its actions, or failures to act, insured that the late Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Olmsted, USAFR didn’t have any information either, when he appealed his denial of veterans’ benefits and had his appeal denied in August 2007 (Reference: )

On 23 August 2007 the Board of Veteran’s Appeals denied the appeal of this good man and dedicated Air Force Reservist, Aaron Olmsted, a superb aviator with over 15,000 hours including many in Patches and our other C-123s, who sought service connection for Agent Orange-presumptive illnesses. Judge S. Cohn of the BVA cited Olmsted’s inability to provide evidence that he’d been exposed to Agent Orange while flying as a C-123K/UC-123K pilot assigned to the 731st Tactical Airlift Squadron, Westover AFB, MA. In particular, Judge Cohn cited:

“While these planes may be of the type that were used in Vietnam to dispense Agent Orange from 1962 to 1971, there is no evidence that any of the planes on which the veteran flew dispenses Agent Orange in Vietnam or that there was any residual Agent Orange on the aircraft the veteran served on.  Further, 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 assertion, standing alone, is not sufficient to show he had actual exposure to Agent Orange, years after it was used in Vietnam.”

I had a heart attack, cancer (dioxin illnesses, along with diabetes and peripheral neuropathy for which I’d already had two surgeries in the ‘70s to stop the intense phantom burning pain by severing the nerves to the sides of both my thighs, a symptom so typical of Agent Orange acute peripheral neuropathy which we'd had yet to learn about, just two years into my C-123 crew duties) and heart surgery this April and thus had the time to look into these illnesses and wonder what may have led them to my doorstep. 

Then from Colonel Dee Holiday, USAFR Ret. and ART nurse of the 74th AES, I learned about their cluster of breast cancers among the nurses and female med-techs. I wondered about the planes which, like Olmsted (whom I don’t believe I met), I myself crewed between 1974-1980. It took ten minutes or so with Google, my laptop and a slow Internet connection to learn that most of these planes were indeed used for spraying Agent Orange, that in particular, Tail Number 362 (Patches) was used for Agent Orange and was tested repeatedly beginning in 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2008 with positive results for presence of dioxin on Patches and the rest of the surplus inventory at DM. Just ten minutes with Google provided everything I was concerned with, and FOIAs offered yet more disturbing materials.

I learned that the Air Force in the person first of Major Urula Moul of the Air Force Office of Environmental Law recommended, with her director’s endorsement, keeping this alarming information “within official channels only.” Further, reports and correspondence regarding these tests and many others conducted by the Air Force itself were surfaced at the Office of the Air Force Surgeon, at Headquarters Air Force Material Command, Office of the Undersecretary of the Army, the Air Staff and at the Office of Secretary of Defense.

Department of Toxicology
In May 2011 I forwarded the results of Air Force tests completed in 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2008 to the Toxicology Department of the Oregon Health Sciences University, asking whether the tests were valid in the Air Force’s conclusion as to the presence of deadly dioxin. The OSHU confirmed that dioxin presence. I also asked whether the C-123K/UC-123K dioxin contamination resulted in aircrew exposure, and they responded “most likely.” The Agent Orange Committee of the Vietnam Veterans of America, made up of scientists and veterans, in June 2011 reached the same conclusion regarding our exposure.

Mine was the profession of arms, not of law nor of government…their rules are confusing and perhaps meant to be so. However, I’m sure every veteran may safely assume that had VA officials known of the withheld documents, no ethical BVA counsel would have failed to provide Judge Cohn that the very documents Olmsted needed to have justice before the BVA...documents kept from him by the service to which he was so dedicated.

Judge Cohn’s reasons cited for denial would have been directly answered with documents withheld by the government, whatever may be the reasons those individual in those government offices had for their actions. No national security was involved at that time. Bad acts and hiding evidence of harmful toxin exposure “within official channels” is certainly an effective way to prevent veterans’ Agent Orange claims, but cannot be an ethical, moral or legal justification for denying Aaron Olmsted a just hearing from Judge Cohn and an effective, ethical and honorable presentation by BVA counsel Stephen Reiss. Perhaps Judge Cohn would have found against Olmsted but it certainly wouldn’t have been for the reasons cited.

Last month I was informed by Colonel Joseph Curley, USAFR Retired, who knew us both from service in the same wing, that Lieutenant Colonel Olmsted, an extremely skilled and experienced aviator with over 15,000 flying hours, recently died in an unexplained, single-person aircraft accident.

Olmsted was a Vietnam-era veteran who also served during the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Grenada and Panama. He died before becoming eligible for TriCare, and though a combat veteran, was denied VA benefits for Agent Orange illnesses as well.

General Stenner, may I trust that it continues to be of interest to you, our service, and to the Board of Veteran’s Appeals, that veterans such as Aaron Olmsted benefit from the necessity for everyone’s commitment to accuracy and truth in presentation before the Board of Veteran’s Appeals? And that if facts such as these are withheld from you and the BVA by other government agencies, you will make right those wrongs dealt him.

Today we learned about Colonel Paul Huffman, our wing vice commander. His wife is respecting his wishes to leave their Connecticut hospital ICU to go home to Florida and die. Colonel Huffman had many C-123 hours in his AFRES career.

General, there are other veterans, such as myself and a too great a number of others crew, maintainers and airevac folks from our units, ill from Agent Orange-presumptive illnesses, and all denied service connection from the VA. This is because, although the Air Force and the General Services Administration tested these airplanes two decades after we flew them and found them still “extremely hazardous, extremely dangerous, extremely contaminated” with dioxin. Somehow our flying them for a decade, spending hundreds of hours aloft and thousands more on the ground with intense exposure to the Agent Orange residue, their policy is that this exposure doesn’t equal VA exposure. Or some such double-speak as that.

I point out that once the stored C-123K/UC-123K contamination was known at Davis-Monthan and at the Museum on Patches, base personnel immediately had to observe protective measures, including full-face respirators, Tyvek coveralls and decontamination after work. Civilian staff which had worked on the C-123K/UC-123K at DM before it was announced that the fleet was contaminated filed an IG complaint which surfaced at the office of the Air Force Surgeon General.

But we flew the Provider in our issue Nomex flight suits. If we were good aviators, we had our gloves on and sleeves rolled down and we wore issue boots...no more hazmat protection than that! We worked on that Dumpster (aka Thunder Pig or Ponderous Polly or Patches), repaired it, loaded it, configured it, took it to air shows, ate our flight lunches, cared for patients, did all our airlift functions throughout the Americas and Europe. We even slept in it overnight on many tactical deployments. Right on the floor, right down where the Agent Orange residue dried after it sloshed around during the Vietnam years.

In late 2010, unable to dispose of the aircraft in any other way due to contamination and the various laws involving hazardous waste, the remaining UC-123s were shredded and smelted.  Shredding was selected because an oblique clause was found in EPA regulations that shredded metal might technically not be considered hazardous…if such waste was “described one way and not another”. On the last reported test, 50% of the aircraft tested bordered on “unsafe” levels of dioxin, and the remaining 50% also showed significant traces…EPA says any measurable amount of dioxin is unsafe, and certainly makes a dangerous work site. Speed was of the essence in disposal of the remaining aircraft due to a looming $3,300,000,000 EPA fine regarding hazardous waste…the plane we flew for ten years was “hazardous waste”.

A “hazardous waste” work site being the weapon system we volunteered to serve aboard, but we didn’t know of the poison at the time. We should have been told once the tests started revealing the danger…why weren’t we? Testing in 2009/2010 was ordered stopped just before the final destruction because it was expensive, because initial testing had proved 100% positive for dioxin, because testing was cited as certain to increase public awareness, and because leadership directed that the entire fleet be treated as dioxin-contaminated.

Like other officers (I was commissioned in 1980 after thirteen years enlisted service in the Army and Air Force) I was selected by the President of the United States who held special trust in my valor, patriotism, abilities and fidelity and who later commended me to the Senate of the United States for promotion to the rank and public office of Major, United States Air Force. The country entrusted me with the lives of the enlisted personnel I led during the Persian Gulf War. I had a security clearance, I earned many rows of ribbons and I earned silver wings with a toilet lid over them. I was a Stan/Eval flight examiner. 

So why the heck wasn’t I “official channels” enough to help keep my aircrews from becoming sick? Why did even our flight surgeon die of ALS without knowing he’d been exposed to Agent Orange while flying on our planes? Why didn’t our squadron commanders know? Why didn’t our Air Force Advisor know?

Robins AFB Museum of Aviation
(As an aside, why does the Museum of Aviation have a contaminated UC-123K with unrestricted physical contact permitted with the aircraft exterior, and even a bench for weary visitors to sit upon directly under the sealed Agent Orange spray valve?)

1.     General, please help right this wrong done your aircrews and help Mrs. Olmsted and her 30-year old incapacitated son receive the survivor’s benefits appropriate for an Agent Orange-exposed veteran. Can you let the VA know this is not the way you want your toxin-exposed combat veteran aircrews treated?

2.     The Air Force and AFRC needs to be of help regarding all the testing done by Brooks, Wright-Patterson, Davis-Monthan and other military labs. The Air Force opted to restrict information about this beginning in 1996 and to continue restricting visibility of the dioxin contamination from the public, the media and the C-123 veterans up to the point of the destruction of the remaining inventory in late 2010. When I asked the SAF/IG office to notify aircrews who’d flown the dioxin-contaminated Providers, they responded “We are unable to notify the individuals in the categories you mentioned.”

3.     Carefully-crafted press releases, edited by folks very senior within AFMC and DOD, made certain the destruction of a dioxin-contaminated aircraft were described as more innocent recycling metal from old, Vietnam-era “herbicide” airplanes. Along the editing cycle for the press release attention-getting words that might alarm veterans and the public were struck out..."Agent Orange" and "dioxin" and "contaminated" were carefully removed.

The Senior Consultant to the Office of Secretary of Defense (a retired active duty colonel) specified in his advice to AMARG that a potential media “storm” could result in post-Vietnam AFRES aircrews and maintainers who’d been exposed and made ill from Agent Orange, lining up at the Veterans Affairs and claiming Agent Orange exposure benefits. This senior DOD official also in a recent public email further described the “Air Force Reservists, trash-haulers, freeloaders, seeking a sympathetic Congressman for tax-free dollars.” This official, seems not to bea strong voice for the Total Force Concept, nor an ally for Reservists seeking a just consideration for their disability claims. Memos and emails released under FOIAs abound regarding the need to minimize public attention, to the point that it all should fairly be called prevarication. OSD might take note of some of our freeloaders, including ex-POW LtCol Charlie Brown, or Gail French who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross bringing in a fully-fueled and burning C-123, Tail #707.

4.     Why did it take me…an ill and already totally disabled wartime Reservist, retired seventeen years, just a few hours on my laptop and a slow Internet connection, to uncover and put together the information about the C-123K/UC-123K and the Air Force dioxin tests to make a conclusion with proof behind it that your aircrews had been exposed? Why didn’t the Air Force Surgeon General or the School of Aerospace Medicine jump onto this years…decades ago? Why haven’t they yet, despite the information being provided them months ago?

General Stenner, you can see that your “trash-hauling, freeloading” combat veteran Reserve aircrews were the very specific, though indirect, target of the word-smithing of this press release out of Hill. The press release was a lie, told with words which were true in themselves but selected more to “undescribe” than to inform, and which resulted in a press release no newspaper would fail to condemn as deceptive, misleading and unethical…that’s how newspapers and reporters have already described it to me.

Sir, we were flying the missions which helped keep our country safe for the first ten years of your career, and you certainly know that we were putting our lives on the line every time we taxied out to fly this old aircraft…that was our mission and our flying squadron, maintenance guys and airevac folks did great. Now we are greatly ill and our Band of Brothers and Sisters needs your official, three-star help.



Wesley T. Carter, Major, USAF Retired 
Medical Service Corps

member: Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Reserve Officer Association, Paralyzed Veterans of America
formerly of the 74th (now 439th) Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron

No comments:

Post a Comment

Got something to share? Nothing commercial or off-topic, please.