06 November 2016

Agent Orange, the C-123, and VA: My summary of it all

(article I wrote for the VFW magazine)

For vets concerned with Agent Orange, and vets concerned with how VA will deal with similar hazards going forward.
Why care? Because we got our Westover, Pittsburgh and Rickenbaker veterans between $48M-$240 million in compensation. It is even possible the total may be over a QUARTER BILLION dollars, but even more important is the life-saving VA medical care now provided.
We accomplished something that will affect all veterans from now on, as regards line-of-duty chemical and biological hazards. I am Wes Carter, a third-generation life member of St Cloud MN VFW Post 428, and a St. Cloud native now retired to Fort Collins Colorado. Retirement has meant time with grandchildren, and also time for volunteer service with veterans, in keeping with VFW core values.
Veterans' advocacy projects are dear to me. The first turned out to be the hardest and longest. It was to seek disability benefits for members of the C-123 Veterans Association, an informal group I started that became recognized as the negotiating voice with the VA.
Our folks are mostly the men and women who flew or maintained these former Agent Orange spray aircraft in the years following Vietnam. The project was pure Westover, labor and money, only from the 74th, 905th and 731st. Vets from Westover, Pittsburgh, Rickenbacker, Elgin, Howard (Panama) and Clark (Philippines) Air Bases all benefited.
VA insisted, even though the aircraft repeatedly tested as heavily contaminated with Agent Orange, there was no way the contamination actually exposed us to the deadly toxin in the herbicide. I had to prove VA and its Agent Orange consultant wrong. This involved lots of travel to Washington DC between the years 2011-2015. Postage, websites, FOIA fees, printing and other huge expenses all added up.
It was (is) a good use of my own Air Force retirement and 100% percent VA disability. I was perceived as a more earnest advocate because there was nothing personally to gain since I was already VA disabled...the beneficiaries were my fellow crewmembers and our maintenance troops.
Challenging the VA involved contacting scientists in and out of government but particularly those in the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. Here I found great support from experts who disagreed with the VA and insisted our exposures were very harmful and, in fact, we should have been flying the toxic airplanes wearing full HAZMAT protection.
Dr. Jeannie Stillman of Columbia University acted as corresponding scientist for the Concerned Scientists and Physicians, a group of dozens of experts affirming our veterans exposures to deadly dioxin.
The VA responded by saying these experts’ opinions were unacceptable, and that VA had “an overwhelming preponderance of evidence” against our exposure injuries having been caused by Agent Orange on the aircraft.
Some of VA's so-called evidence was previously discredited information from Dow and Monsanto. Most of the VA position was only its policy against post-Vietnam Agent Orange exposure claims. Internal VA memos even insisted that the department "hold the line" against us. Eventually, it became clear that the VA "scientific studies" didn't exist and certainly weren't credible science.
We countered VA arguments with stacks of evidence and expert opinions from medical schools and other universities as well as independent scientists and several government agencies. Several scientists re-examined all C-123 toxicology tests, concluded that our veterans had been exposed via dermal, inhalation and ingestion routes of exposure. and published their peer-reviewed report in the journal Environmental Research. There was general agreement everywhere that we been exposed... everywhere EXCEPT the VA.
Enough controversy was created, with enough proof of our exposure gathered, that eventually VA submitted the issue to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science for its investigation and public hearings.
I testified at four of these hearings and offered input regarding aircraft and aircrew details, Agent Orange and dioxin toxicology, history of the aircraft, relevant United States code, VA's misinformation plus data on the post-Vietnam use of these former Agent Orange spray C-123s. I explained how VA and the Air Force considered the C-123s to be "Agent Orange spray aircraft" until the first veterans' claims surfaced. Our FOIA search uncovered many AF tests establishing severe contamination, disproving VA's insistence on only one test on one airplane. The VA consultant testified to IOM that the aircraft were not contaminated but we then showed that in 2009 he recommended Air Force destruction of all airplanes as toxic waste.
CDC testified our airplanes were so contaminated we should have been flying in full hazmat. CDC explained that our cancer risks are much, much higher.
The Institute of Medicine Committee of distinguished scientists and physicians considered the issue for nearly a year before publishing their conclusion: Yes, C-123 aircrews and maintenance staff were indeed exposed and harmed. Importantly, IOM reported that VA and the military routinely ignored or minimized evidence of Agent Orange illnesses. The VA consultant was found to have manipulated or misstated scientific and historical evidence affirming our exposures.
On January 18 2015 VA Secretary Bob McDonald finally authorized full VA benefits for our veterans if diagnosed with any of the recognized Agent Orange ailments.
This had never been done before by any veterans' organization. Along the way, I found powerful help from leadership in the American Legion, DAV, Jewish War Veterans, VFW, Vietnam Veterans, Air Force Association, Reserve Officers Association. Experts and leaders in NIH and CDC also leaned heavily on VA for us. Yale Law School published an outstanding legal brief, and major law firms provided over $120,000 of pro bono legal help as we fought the VA and USAF to get hidden documents released.
The Vietnam Veterans of America helped with a $3000 grant for travel expenses, and VFW leadership worked with other veterans organizations to press Congress and the VA for a resolution and full benefits for our 2100 men and women aircrew and maintenance veterans. I’m very grateful!
We found a sympathetic media from the very first. The Air Force Times, ProPublica, Virginian-Pilot, Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Gazette, Washington Post, veterans organizations magazines, the Springfield Republican, Gannett newspapers, Tom Philpot military.com, the Portland Oregon Oregonian, NPR, CBS and so many others spoke up for us.
Vietnam Veterans of America is active in presenting townhall meetings about Agent Orange and I've put on several of these. Somehow, there are always Vietnam veterans who don't know that their prostate cancer for diabetes or other ailments entitled them to VA benefits, so these are essential educational programs with great fellowship.
Other veterans’ issues are also a concern. In May the governor of Colorado signed legislation that I initiated to provide partial property tax relief to about 700 totally disabled military retirees. When we first moved to Colorado I read the state constitution which provided for property tax relief to 100% VA AND totally disabled military retirees, BUT noticed the enabling law only mentioned VA. Our law was thus in conflict with our constitution. It only took five months to fix that and it was hugely satisfying to get my free pen from the governor signing the new legislation.
While working on that issue I was shocked to learn that Colorado’s Gold Star Wives are not provided any property tax relief such as offered survivors of VA 100% disabled veterans. I’ve been appointed the Gold Star Wives official adviser, and helping these widows is my next project! They need help...VA provides only an inadequate $1252/month to these women who have sacrificed so much.
We are also still working to get retroactive benefits for our C-123 Agent Orange vets because VA back-dates awards only to June 2015. That is unfair because benefits are usually based on the date a claim is submitted. Some of our folks have claims as old as sixteen years.
We got one other change. VA's Veterans Health Administration has a section called Post-Deployment Public Health, led by retired Army physician Dr. Ralph Erickson. This unit will now be tracking all servicemembers' potential exposures to chemical and biological hazards throughout their careers. The NIH scientists who affirmed our exposures also explained to VA the hazards of multi-toxin experiences... the add-on of toxin upon toxin and biohazard upon biohazard...all brewing up over time into mysterious ailments.
In the spring of 2015, during our final rounds of negotiations with VHA, VA general counsel, veterans organizations and congressional staffers, I identified biohazards that Reserve Component servicemembers will face. Posing a hypothetical, I forced VA to acknowledge present rules might not meet both military readiness and VA's duty to care for exposed personnel. Solutions were found, some proposed by the surgeons general of the departments and others as potential legislative steps.
Summary: my health Is really messed up but this kind of work had the benefit of being immensely satisfying, especially when other vets tell me how much their approved claims have meant to them and their families. At our reunion last month one of the older vets from the 905th came out to the club with his wife, and called me outside to offer his thanks for helping get his claim approved.
Wow... that meant so much to me and my wife, Joan.
There's a great need for ALL of us to keep serving our fellow veterans and our nation. It doesn't take money (although that helps.) It takes imagination and dedication which, as veterans, we've all been demonstrating all our lives

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