12 March 2012

Our C-123 Effort an Embarrassment to the USAF? I hope NOT!

A esteemed gentleman scientist who has kindly guided some of our efforts to gain VA recognition for C-123 aircrews and maintenance troops mentioned that the uncovering of this dioxin problem might be an embarrassment to the USAF. I hope not. I believe not!

The mission is to fly and fight. The mission of the Air Force Medical Service is to maintain the fighting strength, and that is done with world-class health care and by protecting personnel from hazards. Not all hazards of military service can be avoided, but those which can be must be addressed if possible.

This protection should be in place before personnel are at risk. I have never met an airman, NCO or officer who would fail to take every action to protect both civilian and military personnel. I do not believe any Air Force leaders deliberately endangered aeromedical evacuation personnel, aircrews or maintenance personnel.

But, it happened. It happened years earlier than the first signs that our airplanes were toxic, and it was discovered only years after we'd retired the last of them to HAZMAT storage at Davis-Monthan. During the years 1972-1982 there simply wasn't much known about the hazards of TCDD and even less known about how the Provider fleet, once back in CONUS, remained heavily contaminated.

The problem, however, arose when somewhere, somehow...a decision was reached to "keep this information in official channels only" (to quote the AF Office of Environmental Law). Perhaps the need to avoid unnecessary public scrutiny was the reason. Perhaps there was sensitivity to the fact that Disney Films had been sold two toxic airplanes and the dread of a possible headline reading "USAF SELLS DISNEY AGENT ORANGE POISON AIRPLANES" was a concern. Maybe the USAF Security Assistance Center was concerned about visibility for selling toxic airplanes to South Korea and Thailand.

We do know, as the Senior Consultant to the Office of Secretary of Defense detailed in memos to officials at Hill AFB, there was a concern about preventing already-exposed aircrews from finding out and turning to the VA for medical care. This point was also mentioned by Hill officials, as part of the justification for smelting the airplanes and for minimizing the publicity of the final destruction. This last one is most offensive.

This last one really bothers me. Why the heck is the Air Force (with decisions endorsed at the Air Staff level) taking actions in 2010 to prevent veterans injured in 1972-1982, decades after the fact? Why the heck was a consultant who considered the exposed crews "trash-haulers and freeloaders" allowed to make recommendations with such a prejudice against the population involved? Would anyone accept care from a health professional who viewed his/her patients in that way?

So is this an embarrassment? No. There can be no embarrassment about eventually righting a wrong. That's why we wear wings showing unique qualification and acceptance of very important responsibility. Righting a wrong is what responsibility and leadership are all about. What honor is about. That's what the Air Force is supposed to be about! That's what accepting an officer's commission is about. So lets get the facts, understand them, and set things right at least. This can only be done with the Air Force Medical Service supporting the C-123K veterans in our Agent Orange claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This can only be done by the USAF declaring that, even though it is something which is long past, the C-123K was unsafe for flight at the time we flew and subjected our aircrews to a then-unknown toxic hazard. 

The officers and NCOs (almost all now retired) who have taken on this mission have been trained by the best...we are retirees but a core element of the United States Air Force, and we are meeting our moral duty by pursuing this issue with all our strength. Eventually, the lesson will be that the USAF always does the right thing, if given a few chances to think about it :) As officers our commissions continue as do our responsibilities to the Nation and the men and women who serve it.

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