Follow on Twitter Springfield Republican, 1 August 2014
CHICOPEE — Support for Westover Air Reserve Base veterans who believed they were exposed to Agent Orange while flying contaminated C-123 Provider planes is expanding, but the scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may complicate their efforts to receive benefits.
U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, has joined several other members of Congress across the country in urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse its decision and grant benefits to the veterans, some of whom still live in Western Massachusetts.
Veterans who served on C-123 Providers at Westover between 1972 and 1982 learned about three years ago the planes had previously been used in Vietnam to spray Agent Orange over the countryside.
When one after another started falling ill with some of the more than 20 diseases known to be caused by Agent Orange exposure including diabetes, prostate cancer, heart disease and neuropathy, retired Maj. Wesley T. Carter, now of Colorado, started researching government documents and found the planes, which have since been shredded and smelted because they were considered hazardous, were contaminated.
Some of the most compelling documents revealed 11 of the 16 planes from Westover tested positive for dioxin when they were examined from 1994 and 1996 – more than a decade after they were retired. One Westover C-123 was labeled “highly-contaminated.”
Since then the veterans have been fighting for benefits that would give them access to free health care and disability payments through the Department of Veterans Affairs, if they fall ill from one of the Agent Orange diseases. The benefits would be similar to those of Vietnam veterans, who are eligible if they spend as little as a day in Vietnam.
The Veterans Affairs scandal, which unveiled alleged manipulation of medical records to hide long wait times for patients, is resulting in additional press coverage and other attention of the plight of the C-123 veterans.
But Carter said he also believes it will take longer to settle their case since it has caused disruption and personnel changes within the agency.
“It will require time to settle out. As for C-123 veterans, it means we're dealing with many new VA faces, but apparently the same VA intransigence,” Carter said. “Our need remains: Let our veterans into VA hospitals for care of their Agent Orange illnesses.”
Carter said he is hoping the increasing support may eventually help the cause of the C-123 veterans, but at the same time is seeing little interest on the VA’s part to change their opinions.
In the letter to Sloan, the executive directors called the continued use of the consulting firm “reprehensible.”
“As you move forward in your efforts to reestablish the trust of veterans in the VA (including the strong united support of the nation’s veterans service organizations), we caution that employing that particular consulting firm will be seen as an inappropriate, anti-veteran choice,” the letter said.
Most recently Young testified on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs in a public hearing of the National Academies of Sciences Institute of Medicine Committee on the exposure of the C-123 veterans to Agent Orange and again said there is no proof that any contamination from the planes directly caused the veterans’ cancer and heart disease, according to the letter.
|Congressman R. Neal and then-Captain Wes Carter, 1990|
“Taking into account…the high levels of illnesses known to be linked to Agent Orange occurring in these Westover veterans, I believe these men and women are entitled to the same benefits granted to those who served on the ground in Vietnam,” Neal wrote.
The letter came after a staff member with local lawyer Archer Battista, of Belchertown, who is a C-123 veteran who is fighting cancer. Battista, like many of the veterans, already has benefits because he served in the Vietnam War but is fighting to help others who do not.