This is a big deal in the impact it had on blocking veterans benefits. We try to explain it here. The Air Force, up through the Surgeon General's Office, has long-denied that the Vietnam-era transports were contaminated in any way, denied that aircrews and maintenance personnel were ever exposed in any way, and that the aircraft were not destroyed as toxic waste. In October 2012 the Air Force Congressional Liaison Director, Major General Tod Wolters Deputy assured Senator Richard Burr that the Air Force had not destroyed the airplanes to keep the veterans from learning of their exposures by destruction of all the evidence. But the memos, FOIA results and the IOM conclusions now tell a different story looking back from today's perspective: A more complete revelation of the mischaracterization of huge toxic disposal process, mischaracterized to prevent exposed veterans from seeking VA medical care.
Destruction to block veterans' exposure claims was first suggested, not by the veterans, but by the Air Force Agent Orange consultant. In his decision memoranda to Air Force officials, he counseled immediate destruction due to concerns exposed veterans would turn to the VA for help. His warnings were repeated by Air Force officials up the chain of command, and he was credited as being "the foremost proponent all along." (the same man was to insist at the IOM June 16 2024 committee meeting that the C-123s somehow weren't contaminated after all.)
But toxic waste those C-123s most certainly were. That's why Air Force JAG attorneys warned of the threatened EPA fine reaching $3.4 billion, at $30,000 a day. That's why the Air Force Office of Environmental Law directed information about the C-123s "be kept in official channels only." The planes had to go, and couldn't be sold because the Air Force toxicologists who examined the aircraft testified in September 2000 during federal court proceedings that the C-123s couldn't be surplused because the "posed a threat to public safety."
The Air Force had canceled profitable surplus sales and refused further offers from eager buyers, but those transports couldn't sit in the Tucson desert much longer with an EPA threat of $30,000 per day adding up, and veterans starting to ask questions about evolving Agent Orange illnesses.
First, a couple loopholes were identified deep in EPA regulations, dealing with whether the lingering contamination incident was deliberate or accidental, and if the scrap from the destruction could be reduced to cell phone size.
|IOM C-123 Report|
Thus began these last five years of the Air Force refusing to admit the C-123s were destroyed as toxic, and the logic trail letting the AF insist none of the veterans were exposed. But the planes were indeed toxic, and January 2015 Institute of Medicine has determined veterans were exposed, proved that the Air Force Surgeon was mistaken, and the IOM's careful recalculation of formulas the military used in measuring the contamination pointed out the Air Force's scientific errors.
|From USAF Position Paper on Immediate Disposal/Recycle of 18 UC-123K/C-123K 'Agent Orange' Aircraf|
|From USAF Memorandum, "Dioxin Contaminated C-123s" Look – the AF cannot spell "minimum" correctly!|
This latest FOIA release again points out the USAF professional failures surrounding the press release prepared by Hill Air Force Base. It actually never was released but held in the event of any inquiries if anybody noticed eighteen transports had disappeared from the Boneyard. Recent HQ USAF PA memos have insisted Public Affairs did everything properly, and that press releases are never released. The Air Force insists it met its professional public affairs responsibilities even though words like Agent Orange, dioxin, and other attention-grabbing words were edited out and the process ended up described as "an environmentally responsible recycling of aged Vietnam-era airplanes."
Somehow, telling the truth, meeting its regulatory standards, serving the needs of the public to be informed about its armed forces, and raising the journalism standards it sets for itself all fell away in this C-123 Agent Orange story, as Air Force Public Affairs slipped down to the level of "marketing communications"
–selling the product, maintaining the brand name, waiving off accusations of misbehavior. Deceptions falling short of their mission statement, "Provide Airmen with unique Public Affairs resources to document and convey the Air Force mission and legacy."
USAF PA somehow still feels it best served the Air Force by not telling the public of destroyed toxic warplanes, and by not telling the exposed veterans (through the media) of the event. Tell us now, PA...how'd that deception work out?
From the aircrew's perspective, it didn't work out too well, because four years went by without PA alerting us our that our toxic C-123 exposures caused what the CDC calculated to be our 200-fold greater cancer risk. Four years when we could have been watching our health more closely, had we known what Air Force Public Affairs felt it best not to tell us.
Publicity below the radar was what the Air Force wanted, what the press release was intended to minimize, and it all worked. Real world conclusion: that overworked nasty phrase, "cover up." The Washington Post's August 3 and August 8 2013 articles told the story quite well and managed to avoid use of the phrase.
Until C-123 veterans began associating their years flying these former Agent Orange spray airplanes with their Agent Orange-related illnesses. Veterans had been told since 1979 that the spray planes were safe, and told to clean out remaining dioxin residue by scrubbing with Dawn detergent, and finally were never told of the 1994 tests on "Patches" showing it "heavily contaminated on all test surfaces."
So the April 2010 Air Force press release...their press release so carefully prepared but never released, was deceitful, leaving out the true information about the airplanes' Agent Role. The Air Force Surgeon General was wrong in May 2012 not to notify exposed veterans out of a phony concern to "cause undue distress." – any health warning might have helped veterans take precautions, such as PSA tests.
There is even a third recent FOIA document set revealing how suddenly what had been for decades "the dioxin contaminated C-123 aircraft" instantly became merely innocent, "aged Vietnam-era transports." Concerns with the toxins which required the USAF Surgeon General to direct civilian employees around the stored airplanes to wear full HAZMAT were dismissed as soon as exposed veterans learned the source of their illnesses, and both AF and VA sought to block further notoriety.
Finally, the Air Force was terribly deceitful to have cooperated
with the VA in efforts to prevent veterans' exposure claims. A final deception to share: Major General Tod Wolters, Air Force Congressional Liaison Director, whose October 2012 letter to Senator Burr flatly dismissed all health concerns veterans had raised, and assured the Senator and his Veterans Affairs Committee that the "The Air Force has not deemed these aircraft as 'heavily contaminated' or 'a danger to public health' in their present configuration."
General Tod Wolters, who signed the report to Senator Burr, insisted the aircraft were safe "in their present configuration" – true, but only because their "present configuration" was as smelted aluminum ingots: all C-123s been shredded and smelted as toxic waste two years earlier!