11 October 2011

Our Rebuttal of VA Comments to Senator Burr of North Carolina

Our letters to staff of North Carolina's Senator Burr and the staff of Commander, Air Force Reserve, which is supposed to have held a conference call with VA officials (no word back yet on any results). Letter to AF first, letter to Senator second.

Dear Major Broussard,

Senator Burr's staff met with some reps from the VA regarding our C-123K problems, and were told that our Agent Orange exposure didn't happen because the post-Vietnam lifespan of dioxin on metal is short. The VA failed to tell my senator's folks that most of the airplane interior was not bare metal, but painted, and Agent Orange and its dioxin contamination soak into paint, and also soak into the insulation, wiring, web seating, etc, as well as the aviation-grade aluminum (which is more porous and which absorbed dioxin more readily than polished steel). 

They stated that the Air Force was concerned about the Agent Orange contamination of the C-123 in an effort to be overly cautious. They failed to note that the Air Force tests establishing the airplanes as "heavily contaminated, extremely dangerous, extremely hazardous, extremely contaminated" were done in 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2008, years before the airplanes were determined to be too toxic for a landfill and with smelting them the only option left. These tests did not use timid words like "cautious"...the official Air Force words were instead "extremely dangerous" and "extremely hazardous." 

The VA people seemed to say because time had passed by the point the aircraft were destroyed thirty years after their retirement, we couldn't have been exposed to dioxin in 1972-1982 (beginning the year after air airplanes' last Agent Orange spray missions during Vietnam), all the tests establishing contamination notwithstanding.

The VA cited the absence of tests done between the retirement of the C-123 in 1982 and their destruction in 2010, failing to note volume upon volume of official Air Force tests as well as Air Force-contracted tests, every single one of which reported positive for dioxin contamination.

A snow job. If it had been done by any military officer aware of the various tests I'm describing, it would be called dishonorable and a prevarication.

Please don't let it happen to you in presenting our concerns to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Even their own staff must have snickered at this effort with Senator Burr's people!

And please, what is happening? I was back in the hospital myself last week, and this week, and I'll be back again today. Like my crewmates, I'm gravely ill and would like to wrap this up before they wrap me up.


   Wes Carter

--------------my letter to Senator Burr's staff follows: They are the folks who met with the VA and were told by the VA that our claims about Agent Orange exposure are groundless-----------------------------------

Mr. Brooks Tucker
Senior Policy Advisor
Office of Senator Burr, North Carolina

Dear Mr. Tucker,

Thank you for explaining the results of your staff’s meeting with officials from the Veterans Administration regarding our aircrew exposure to Agent Orange during the decade we, as Air Force crewmembers, flew the C-123K/UC-123K “Provider”, previously used for spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam for Operation Ranch Hand. The VA’s characterization of the Air Force test results and the VA’s perspective of the Air Force position relative to the reuse of the surplus airplanes as expressed during your meeting could, perhaps, be described as a greatly overdone abundance of caution.

The Air Force and the General Services Administration, however, have instead officially described their position as cautious regarding the dioxin contamination…and absolutely not dismissive of the threat! In fact, totally the opposite as per their 2000 report to a federal judge in which both the AF and GSA both characterized these airplanes as being "heavily contaminated" by the dioxin on them. These two words were not used by a layman or a government attorney, but instead by the Air Force toxicologists who tested the airplanes. Certainly it should have been reasonable for the Air Force to be “cautious” regarding aircrew dioxin exposure, although it was not known to be contaminating our airplanes until the very first test in 1979 after we’d flown them for seven years. 

I would hope that the Air Force is “cautious” regarding any airplane, any crew, any possible hazard. In our case, the contamination having been established, the word should be alarmed!

Last week I asked experts for help regarding the VA statements that the surface aging of dioxin would make aircrew exposure to the toxin inconsequential. I sought opinions from two members of the Agent Orange Committee of the Institute on Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and scientists at both Oregon State University and Columbia University.

In particular, I sought the advice of Dr. Fred Berman, head of the Toxicology Department of Oregon Health Sciences University. In his May 2011 report to the Secretary of the Air Force, he evaluated (and validated) the Air Force test results and provided the University’s finding that our aircrews had been exposed during the timeframe 1972-1982. Yesterday, he replied:
Major Carter,
Regarding the stance that the VA is maintaining (that dioxins would have degraded within a short time after service in VN had ended), you could reason that, if indeed the dioxins had rapidly degraded, and in light of the fact that dioxins were detected in significant concentrations on and inside Patches in 2000, then aircrews would likely have been exposed to much higher levels of dioxin between 1970-1980 than suggested in my letter to the Secretary of the Air Force (i.e. The dioxin concentrations immediately after service in Viet Nam would have had to have been very very high to begin with).
Fred Berman
From: Fred  Berman <bermanf@ohsu.edu>

Please, Brooks, in your representation of us to the VA, defend the position that we have indeed been heavily exposed.Air Force tests done in 1994 on Patches, our most famous C-123K/UC-123K which my squadron flew, reported it"heavily contaminated" with 100% of the swipe tests showing positive for dioxin. Not hypothetical...not degraded, not aged, not anything except "heavily contaminated." This test was done twelve years AFTER we last flew the series. Nobody could believe the aircraft was more contaminated in 1994 than it was in 1972-1982...the VA's own faulty information about surface contamination and aging of dioxin would argue against that conclusion! And no laboratory report concluding an aircraft to be "heavily contaminated" could possibly be seen as in agreement with the VA's description of the Air Force's view of dioxin contamination being so insignificant that the Air Force shredded and smelted the entire valuable fleet for a merely hypothetical risk. 

Please note also that the airplane tested last sprayed Agent Orange in 1969, yet it still tested 100% positive for dioxin, "heavily contaminated" on every single surface examined in 1994. The test did not reveal modest contamination,hypothetical contamination, degraded contamination, significant contamination, or any contamination other thanHEAVILY contaminated. The C-123K’s were even MORE heavily contaminated when we flew them over a decade earlier. Please compare this finding with the suggestions from the VA reps who you met with and you'll see the error of their logic and the blatant effort at disinformation. One should consider their argument here a clear prevarication and deception.

Lieutenant General John Hudson, USAF Retired and Director of the National Museum of the Air Force, wrote me that "before my tenure as Director the aircraft (Patches, Tail 362) was found to be contaminated with dioxin (and) was decontaminated by a contractor." The decontamination, to make it safe for the airplane to be brought inside the Museum, cost $52,000, and required striping all paint from the exterior, removing all insulation and other dioxin-laden materials, and sealing the airplane for all but very limited interior access.

Please remember that we flew Patches, and our other dioxin-contaminated aircraft, in our normal lightweight flight suits, without hazmat protection, without respirators, and without post-flight decontamination. We flew the airplanes for hundreds of hours, we worked on them in flight and on the ground for thousands of hours. We ate in them. slept in them, and were very, very exposed in them. Further, in flight the incessant vibration of the aircraft caused particles to become airborne and thus inhaled.

In 1996 the 355th AMDS/SGPB at Davis-Monthan AFB contracted with Alta Labs to evaluate the aircraft stored at Davis-Monthan, and nearly all tested positive for dioxin (some results were lost, and some were tested incorrectly with the lab determining that actual dioxin contamination might actually be higher than their test results first indicated). In 1997 Armstrong Labs from the Air Force Institute for Operational Health completed tests on C-123K’s stored at Davis-Monthan with similar results but adding the Lab’s concern that the dioxin toxicity could be severe enough to also contaminate the ground beneath the airplanes. AMARC employees were at this point in time directed to wear rubber gloves, a face shield, at least a half-face respirator, and Tyvek coveralls to avoid dioxin exposure, per instructions of Dr. Ronald Porter, Air Force toxicologist.

In 1997, aware of the health threat posed by the toxin, HQ AFMC directed via their memo that
the surplus “dioxin contaminated aircraft” (their words) be sealed and relocated within a “fenced area within the…security area. They will be completely out of view.” (their words). The quarantine effort, necessary for preventing additional personnel exposure, was also done with the specified goal of reducing the public awareness of the 21 remaining “dioxin airplanes”. This effort cost $160,000. Mr. Thomas Lorman, HQ/AFMC/LG-EV, wrote in 1997 that these airplanes are “likely to be contaminated with dioxin from defoliation operations…The Air Force can be up front and warn owners of possible contamination. JAV states the Air Force is at great risk.” (emphasis mine). Certainly this leaps the VA’s barrier of “as likely to as not” regarding any C-123K aircrew veteran’s disability claims! The Air Force’s description of these planes as too toxic for a landfill should also mean that the VA’s barrier of “as likely to as not” regarding our exposure has been greatly exceeded.

In 2008, four aircraft were selected at random and each tested positive for trace levels (or higher) of dioxin, and the test cycle was halted to save the $750-1500 cost per airplane, as well as to prevent characterization of the surplus fleet as "100% contaminated." Messages were exchanged stating that because of the high visibility of "the Agent Orange airplanes", this round of testing could state that four of eighteen aircraft tested positive, rather than continuing the testing and getting an even higher and more visible percentage. Further, AFMC had already decided to destroy all the remaining aircraft.

Please remind the Air Force and the VA that the quarantine of the contaminated aircraft, in which they were placed in a separately fenced area with HAZMAT signs prohibiting access, cost over $150,000. This was not done "just in case" the airplanes were contaminated, but because the base safety officials required it, and both the base medical organization and the AF Surgeon General dictated that workers wear hazmat clothing, respirators, head covers and decontaminate after working. This level of protection is appropriate for "heavily contaminated, extremely dangerous, extremely hazardous" contamination...just as these airplanes were described by Air Force test results.

Remind the VA that the General Services Administration as well as the Air Force testified before a federal judge in 2000 concerning the government's cancelation of a C-123 sale. Both agencies told the judge that these airplanes represented a danger to public health. They were characterized by the Air Force toxicologist, Dr. Ronald Porter, as “extremely hazardous waste requiring special handling, and his recommendation was to decontaminate each airplane (this recommendation submitted 16 years after we last flew them, 16 years in which their degree of contamination was reduced) at a cost of $15,000 apiece. They did not state that the danger was hypothetical, “overly cautious” or that the danger existed only in Vietnam. These officials testified that the airplanes were contaminated and should not be sold. As you know, two had already been sold to Disney for movies. Continuing on Page 11 of the judge’s ruling, the Air Force reminded the federal judge, and the judge cited as a finding, eight dangers of dioxin contamination from these airplanes, crediting the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the United States Public Health Service.

The director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Dr. Christopher Porter, wrote me on August 11, 2011, saying our collection of dioxin contamination materials concerning the C-123K is “remarkable”, and recommending that the information be “carefully considered by the Department of Defense”. Because his Agency was cited in 2000 as part of the scientific proof that the surplus C-123K fleet was dioxin contaminated, I strongly recommend that Dr. Porter be consulted for his specific recommendation that the aircraft were indeed contaminated a decade earlier when we flew them!

I personally will pay the travel expenses for Dr. Fred Berman, Dr. Christopher Porter, Dr. Jeanie Stellman of Columbia, or any other reputable expert to be by your side at any future meeting with the VA. Invite them and let me know their expenses. Dr. (name removed) is on the Agent Orange Committee of the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Science... very, very familiar with the C-123K situation, has studied the multitude of tests done on the airplanes, and states that the aircrews were exposed. As you probably know, members of the Agent Orange committee cannot independently publish on the topic, but they certainly can answer questions...so ask (name removed) at (email address removed for privacy)

 1. Olmsted couldn’t prove that the airplanes he flew were the ones used for spraying Agent Orange during Vietnam and
 2. Olmsted couldn’t prove that there was any (my emphasis) dioxin contamination on the airplanes.

He should have had available both proofs...the tail numbers of contaminated airplane assigned to our squadrons have been researched and confirmed by AFRC, and the contamination is established by multiple Air Force tests, although these documents were not available to Olmsted when he filed because they were "kept in official channels only." Denying a veteran necessary documents to approach the VA for medical care cannot be characterized, as the VA has done to you, as "an overabundance of caution." 

I remind you that I was a Stan/Eval flight examiner in my crew position, certified by the Air Force as one of the three most knowledgeable individuals in my AFSC, yet neither I nor any other crew member ever was "official channels" enough to be told of this contamination. It was manifestly my duty to have known everything affecting my aircrew and my student’s health and safety. I have spoken to several state fire marshals who agree with Oregon’s state fire marshal that withholding this kind of information about toxin-endangered employees is a crime. Consider having a senior firefighter from the D.C. department or the Pentagon sit in with your next VA meeting. The only concern I'd have if having genuine toxicology or public health experts with you as the VA "explains things" is that the laughter from them over VA efforts at misinformation would disrupt your otherwise serious meeting.

As you know, the Air Force in 2010 finally smelted the toxic aircraft. In their approval memo, AMARG officials (505 ACSS and 74 CEG) stated “this can be done discretely. This option avoids all contact with or exposure to the public and the aircraft are not made available for commercial sale. This option can happen quickly. Smelting is necessary for these 18 aircraft so the Air Force will no longer be liable for ‘presumptive compensation’ for anyone who ever works around this “Agent Orange” metal…If the Air Force wants quick and quiet disposal, the Navy option is preferable.”
I am offended that these individuals took “quick and quiet” actions to prevent our veterans’ justified claims for “presumptive compensation”, especially considering that our exposure had already taken place.

Senator Burr and Mr. Tucker, you can see that our aircrews worked with this “Agent Orange” metal for a decade. We have been sickened by it as well as by the VA’s construct of any argument at hand, twisted out of context as much as necessary, to insure denial of our proven exposure. I am amazed that they can twist the Air Force initial test results ofPatches being “heavily contaminated” into merely, as you put it, “an overly cautious mindset.” In all the documents I’ve uncovered from the Air Force, there has been no such timid phrase used…the phrases used by the Air Force have been “Agent Orange airplanes”, “extremely contaminated,” “heavily contaminated”, “extremely dangerous”, danger to the public” and similar language. These should be the words also used by the Department of Veterans Affairs in addressing our concerns.

We are gravely ill from this disaster. Please defend us with all your ability.

For the Veterans of the C-123K

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

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