25 December 2012

Christmas Morning Reflections From a C-123 Guy

"Aren't you bitter?" she asked me. She meant bitter about the VA officials so dedicated to preventing veterans' access to medical care. She meant about the AF officials over the years who dealt with the contaminated C-123 fleet but never bothered to worry about the health of the crews already exposed.

We'd both awakened early this Christmas morning. As we waited for grandbabies to wake up and come to cuddle, our conversation under the warm covers drifted to the theme of the Christmas Eve services we attended here in snowy Denver. That pastor's metaphor addressed having to be led, each of us, many times in our lives - and how we all depend on unseen others, and God, to carry burdens when we are heavy laden.

My wife's question wove the Christmas message into our C-123 battle with the Veterans Administration. I thought about her question while framing an answer (contemplation and preparation are usually not parts of my conversational skill group) - and it was "no, not bitter. Disappointed, tired, weary of the vast amount of information about dioxin and toxicology to deal with - but not bitter."

Even after watching dear friends like Gabby Gadbois die, I'm not bitter. Even after learning of disease heaped upon disease in all the hospital stays I've had this year, with a PICC line still dripping medicine into my heart - not bitter.

Not bitter because there is much to be grateful for, and mostly for others carrying such a mammoth part of the load I'd otherwise be crushed beneath. First and foremost, grateful for my wife picking up responsibilities she'd never imagined having to manage by herself...and not because of any lack of qualification (she's got several more graduate degrees than I do) but by the sheer effort she must expend. All the housework, all the yard work, coordinating refurbishing contractors, leadership as an ordained elder in several church programs, Shelly's House for offenders...and caring for me hand and foot. Literally, as I cannot even put on that my own shoes and socks. She is my rock and my foundation.

So the bitterness leaves me altogether. What I conclude, however, is that we're dealing with people not like us. Not like the officers and NCOs I've served with. Not like George Gadbois. Not like Mike Walker. Not like Bob Boyd or Tim Olmsted. So many VA and Air Force officials just are not like us.

I don't believe I have ever served with an officer who would make battle against us as have the VA officials who sat around the conference table twice this year. I know I have never served with officers and NCOs who would learn of such a health hazard as our exposure yet somehow not to notify the crews involved or accept an order to hide the information from them. "Hell, NO" would have been the response from anyone I've ever known. Not the kind of American officer or American NCO that this Nation trusts us to be and hopes we will be faced with hard decisions.

We are not the kind of officers who would have tolerated Abu Grahib. We are the officers who in honor would have stopped it, at pistol point if necessary. We are not the officers who would fail our wingman - ever. We are the soldiers who truly carry our honor and our country's values into the military. Trash haulers, perhaps. Freeloaders - never. We are American soldiers. We were the kind of solders who mastered basic,  flight school, survival schools, the misery of SERE school up at Fairchild, and seemingly unending trips away from the family...all we wanted was to serve.

VA decision makers? Not to paint them all with the same brush, but too many are not at all like us. "Benefit of the doubt?" They pretend, nothing more.

A Request of VA and USAF leadership: Don't laugh because of our airplane - it is what you ordered us to fly. We've all flown many other planes, but somehow, like Medal of Honor holder Joe Jackson, we remain "C-123 guys" just like the C-123 will forever remain "the Agent Orange airplane." We flew the plane we were tasked to fly because AF leaders we trusted said that old bird, and our skills aboard it, were vital to the nation's defense. We certainly proved it during REFORGER exercises! Guys like Gail French proved it bringing in Tail #707 in flames, earning the DFC the hard way. Guys like Charlie Brown who came back from Hanoi proved it by putting on a flight suit again and quietly served with us. We earned the Airborne's Iron Mike award! The Army truly loved us, and after all the Army was JOB ONE as our primary customer in wartime. Of course, it would have been very nice if the C-123 had been engineered with some sort of commode and at least a Mr. Coffee! Maybe even an autopilot? Alas.

Merry Christmas from Wes
Agent Orange? Nobody knew the bill we'd be handed over this mess, but it is what it is. The intolerable part, the painful part, is now being treated as pariah by the VA - treated thus by people who are not like us. Fellow vets, don't be bitter. We are trying hard to carry the issue and we have so many helping carry the load with us - American Legion. Vietnam Veterans, leaders like Senators Burr and Merkley with their staffs, scientists and physicians across America.

Who knows? We might even have a secretly sympathetic ear somewhere within the VA...an ear which may someday hear our voices, out here in the wilderness where we trying, trying so very hard not to be bitter.

Dear VA, USAF, fellow Veterans and your families - God Bless & keep you, and Merry Christmas.

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