09 September 2014

1979: DOD Informed VA C-123 Aircraft Contaminated, Crews & Mechanics "At Risk"

The Department of Defense has always worked closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs, with both agencies concerned about the rising number of veterans' claims for illnesses associated with Vietnam service from the earliest days. Both agencies wanted to both understand the medical situation facing the vets, and avoid approving disability claims soon associated with Agent Orange.

Well into the 1980s, VA encouraged its physicians to classify veterans' complaints for these mysterious maladies as psychiatric illnesses. This both resolved the question as to how to classify the vet and also made many veterans, afraid of the stigma of a mental illness allegation, shy away from pursuing any claims.

Many veterans bought the story, and believed they needed to simply man up to their "imagined" illnesses. Pretending away real-world cancers, heart disease and other physical problems is certainly a path leading to mental illness, and it took decades for VA to do a mind-shift to better science.

A large part of VA's resolution to block pre-1991 claims, to pretend as an agency that no illnesses were associated with Agent Orange, were DOD reports that none of the Vietnam veterans were exposed, other than Ranch Hand and others who'd handled liquid Agent Orange. A principal such report from VA to DOD was dated 12 December 1979, and titled "Criteria for Estimating Exposure Levels of Military Personnel to Dioxin and Herbicide Orange During the Vietnam War."

Post-Vietnam C-123 veterans will be interested in the report's details of mechanics being among those acknowledged to be exposed to Agent Orange,  along with crews flying contaminated former Ranch Hand airplanes. This is a very telling statement with meaning for us today: The Air Force acknowledged both the contamination of the aircraft and the exposure to both mechanics and aircrews flying former spray planes. because once C-123 veterans began seeking VA disability coverage, the Air Force quickly changed its claim and denied both.

Please see the point: The 1979 investigation showed aircraft remained contaminated after spraying Agent Orange, and mechanics and aircrews were exposed. With the first C-123 vets' exposure claims in 2011, both VA and USAF immediately reversed themselves, preventing all C-123 veteans' claims. This was done by VBA on input from VHA Post Deployment Health which predetermined that none of the veterans were exposed, and that VA "could not permit C-123 veterans' claims." (VHA statement to Army Major Terry Rudd.) Apparently written promises by the Secretary and Under Secretary Hickey that "all claims will be considered on a case-by-case basis" were strictly for show – in fact, VBA simply ordered all C-123 claims denied.

In 2006, DOD cooperated with the Department of Veterans Affairs once again, this time by producing a selected list of Agent Orange sites outside Vietnam. Titled, "The History of the US Department of Defense Programs for the Testing, Evaluation, and Storage of Tactical Herbicides," Battelle and its subcontractor chose certain locations where "tactual herbicides" as defoliants such as Agent Orange became known, listing them for submission to the DOD and from DOD to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although comprehensive, including even little-known sites such as Van Nuys, California, the DOD isn't perfect. The lack of perfection is a fatal blow...literally, not figuratively to many veterans who've found themselves in locations which Battelle opted to leave off their list, or which became known after 2006 only to find DOD reluctant to consider any additions.

Why such importance to veterans? Because unless an Herbicide Orange claim is from "boots on the ground" Vietnam vets, or from vets whose claims for exposure are substantiated by this DOD list, VA refuses to acknowledge the exposure and denies the claim. VA simply cites the DOD list as the sole authority. A related agency, the Joint Services Records Research Center, is often sought out by VA for validation of exposure claims, however JSRRC often refers to the same DOD list.

Why is all of this of such importance to C-123 veterans? Because DOD has refused list C-123s formerly used for spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Air Force testing established the contamination of many aircraft at many times during the decades after Vietnam.

DOD, however, has twice refused formal requests to retrospectively add the already-destroyed C-123s to its list. Lieutenant General J. Fedder (Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Installations and Mission Support) has refused veterans appeals to consider placing on the those C-123s with tail numbers identifying their Vietnam spray history.

DOD has also denied a formal Inspector General complaint regarding General Fedder's decision to block the C-123 addition. There the DOD list concern rests for the moment, but the discovery of the 1979 DOD exposure criteria report helps, if only to show that both DOD and VA change their stories as necessary to prevent C-123 exposure claims.

VA and DOD? So far, a win-win situation for them, with but a single C-123 veteran's claim accepted.
C-123 veterans: We place great hope in the IOM process, although we realize that VA has already stacked that deck, also. They generated reports to their liking, had an expert speaker present their interests to the committee have a full, talented staff dedicated to opposing vets' claims, and also were able to select the wording for the "charge" given the IOM committee.

Veterans service organizations were surprised to see VA submit a charge to the committee, and then vigorously oppose the veterans rather than assume the required non-adversarial role.

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