(a letter of complaint submitted in June and unanswered in the four months since)
Office of Public Affairs
Department of the Air Force
Department of the Air Force
Dear Sir or Madam,
In April 2010 the 75th ABW, Hill AFB, Utah prepared in advance a press release describing the destruction of the remaining C-123K/UC-123K aircraft at the Davis-Monthan AFB. I believe this to have been deceptive and harmful to Air Force interests.
Throughout the period 2000-2010, intense concern was raised at different agencies, including the Office of Secretary of Defense, the Air Staff, the Air Force Surgeon General, the Air Force Office of Environmental Law, the Deputy Undersecretary of the Army, HQ Air Force Material Command and more. The concern: dioxin contamination left on the aircraft from their Vietnam War service as Agent Orange spray aircraft in Operation Ranch Hand.
1993 seems to be the first time when tests were ordered on Patches, the Air Force Museum’s famous C-123, was tested before positioning inside the museum. It tested positive for dioxin…in the words of the Air Force test it was “heavily contaminated”. Other Air Force tests resulted in the aircraft being labeled "extremely hazardous, extremely dangerous, extremely contaminated".
More tests and correspondence accumulate during the period 1994-2000 with the only concerns expressed being the disposal of the aircraft, safety of personnel at the Boneyard, whether Walt Disney films should be told that two of the C-123s they purchased for movie production were contaminated, whether foreign governments should be informed that the aircraft transferred to them were contaminated, and similar correspondence.
In 1996 AFMC’s Office of Environmental Law recommended the contamination be “kept within official channels”, a recommendation endorsed by the writer’s commander, the Director of the Office of Environmental Law.
In 2000 the Air Force joined with the General Services Administration in a court action to stop the contracted sale of some contaminated C123s. The federal judge took their evidence of the aircraft being “heavily contaminated, extremely dangerous, extremely hazardous, extremely contaminated, danger to the public” and other descriptions, and ordered the sale terminated to protect the public health (as recommended by the Air Force!)
In 2009 the AMARG/AFMC moved towards disposal of the remaining 21 aircraft, but they couldn’t be buried as they were too toxic for a landfill. The recommendation of the Office of Secretary of Defense (Dr Alvin Young, Senior Consultant) was to stop testing the aircraft immediately for toxicity…all four had tested positive (two significant and two trace, but any trace is unsafe) and his suggestion was that that result could be taken two ways. First, that “only two of the 21 aircraft were toxic”, or that “50% or more of the remaining aircraft were toxic.” As the testing was costly, Dr Young and base officials, acting on Dr Young’s authority from Office of Secretary of Defense, opted to shred the entire fleet of C-123s, having learned that shredded metal does not fall under EPA guidelines as did the aircraft…and there was a threatened $3,400,000,000 fine.
Dr Young also recommended that the public affairs at Hill and Davis-Monthan prepare for media inquiries. He mentioned an article from Orion Magazine, and discussed the worry that a media “storm” that might develop could inform Air Force Reservists who flew the airplanes between 1972-1982 that their dioxin-related illnesses might be brought to the VA for treatment. Various drafts of a press release were offered, and Dr Young along with other officials “corrected” the drafts by eliminating words such as “Agent Orange”, “dioxin”, “contamination” and replacing them with words less likely to alarm the public…Agent Orange and dioxin and contamination were replaced with “herbicide” and “aged Vietnam-era airplanes no longer flown.” The last part of the statements disregards the other Air Force memos about agencies desperate to purchase the valuable engines and propellers, and museums which wanted them, and private buyers who wanted them so desperately they unsuccessfully sued in federal court to try to force a sale.
The final version of the UC-123’s story was approved by the necessary authorities at the 75th Air Base Wing. It was not distributed, but held in case of media inquiry. This was a further element of the effort to minimize public awareness of the true story of the event.
No lies were told. Mistruths were constructed, however, to build a story which really had nothing to do with the real news of the event…dioxin contaminated aircraft. Nobody at the PA shop inquired of the managers of the event about the Air Force Reserve aircrews which had been exposed to dioxin on their airplanes for a full decade. Instead, the public affairs officers bent without objection, indeed, apparently with eager willingness, to construct a press release to deceive the media and the public, as well as the Air Force Reservists beginning to wonder why they have cancer, heart disease, acute peripheral neuropathy, ALS, and other dioxin-related illnesses.
I note a the confusing use of a business title implying official actions within and by the Office of Secretary of Defense. Dr. Alvin Young was cited in several documents from HQ AFMC and the 75th Air Base Wing as Agent Orange “Senior Consultant to the Office of Secretary of Defense.” He used the title himself in memoranda, sometimes adding “Professor”, and his name and title were cited as authority for the decision by AMARG to shred and smelt 21 surplus C123K/UC-123K aircraft in 2010.
Further, his attitudes and reactions to Reserve Component aircrews are a specific concern. In his 26 June 2009 position paper regarding the need for speedy destruction of the dioxin-contaminated aircraft, Dr. Young mentions the media “storm” which might attend the operation and cause aircrews and maintenance workers with dioxin-related illnesses to seek care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He seems soley concerned with the visibility of this event, which he frequently writes must be low key (and even congratulates base officials on concluding the operation with minimal public attention). There has been an obvious, skillful twisting of words by Public Affairs to hide the actual event – a prevarication - destruction of dioxin-contaminated aircraft with a potential $3.4 billion dollar EPA or State of Arizona fine. This by presenting a completely misleading press release. There is an ethical standard in preparation of press releases, but it seems to have been ignored here.
The consultant,a retired Air Force officer but not a flyer or combat veteran, in a 10 July 2011 email described the dioxin-exposed Air Force Reserve combat veteran aircrews as “trash haulers, freeloaders looking for a sympathetic Congressman for tax-free dollars” seems an inappropriate person to be editing Air Force press releases especially when he helps direct the misinformation concerning events vital to my health...I served aboard those airplanes! I flew them with “trash haulers, freeloaders” who had earned the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, POW, Bronze Star, Air Medals and other combat decorations not typically lavished on “trash haulers, freeloaders”.
Particular concern has been raised with the 12 February 2010 Staff Summary prepared by Mr. Dwight Eagle of the 505th. He note’s Dr. Young’s suggestion that although the UC-123K was principally used to spray Agent Orange, because some of them sometimes sprayed other liquids or conducted other missions, it could thus be described in terms of those missions, rather than the Agent Orange-Ranch Hand missions which were the principal employment for the airplane. Dr. Young “clarified that the low levels of contamination are not necessarily attributed to Agent Orange, since not all aircraft were used in defoliant operations. Therefore, according to Dr. Young, the aircraft disposal does not have to be publically announced as portraying or relating to Agent Orange.”
The Air Force Academy Cadet Honor Code Handbook, and ever other military text dealing with honor, considers this word-twisting to be quibbling, evasive, and incomplete…a Public Affairs lie constructed from half-truths, and dishonorable. It is perhaps not in keeping with the requirements of the State of Arizona or the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules and regulations regarding hazardous waste storage and their threatened $3.4 billion fine.
Thanks to numerous military-oriented editors and reporters, this story has changed quite a bit from what it could have been – the simple “destruction of Agent Orange contaminated aircraft in an environmentally responsible way” to one where the news value is in the early attempts to keep the information in official channels, to one where Air Force public affairs abused the trust of the public and media by misleading them through a poorly-crafted and deceptive press release. To a situation where public affairs at both Hill AFB and Davis-Monthan AFB failed to bring to the attention of leadership their military and civil service ethical responsibilities. And, although public affairs professionals, failed to alert their leaders as to the negative impact of failing to notify aircrews who’d been exposed to the toxins and the health dangers this press release was designed to conceal from us, our families, the media and the public.
I find this reprehensible.
Wesley T. Carter, Major USAF