09 April 2021

We're Trying to Get Colorado's Gold Star Wives Some Property Tax Relief

That's right! It seems this state legislature simply didn't contemplate the possibility of Colorado soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines dying on active duty. That's why Colorado seem to have forgotten to offer our Gold Star Wives the same widows' benefits as we provide to survivors of totally disabled veterans.

That's unjust and plain WRONG! But not a single widow of an active duty service member
is permitted the Colorado Disabled Veteran's Survivor Property Tax Exemption, a small
exemption saving widows between $400-$600 a year.

Why? Our state constitution's Article X Section 3.5 permits the exemption only to widows of 
disabled veterans already in receipt of the benefit. Dying on Active Duty means not being
able to complete the application process – because the service member died first!

This is Really an Amazing and Ridiculous Catch-22!

Why is the small property tax exemption of value to Gold Star Wives?

First, it shows the state's respect and appreciation for the loss borne by these widows and widowers. The partial tax exemption would only save about $400 to $600. It would seem a minor issue to most of us. 

But look at this from a Gold Star Widow's perspective. Circumstances vary, but if eligible widows can receive half of the service member's base pay. More than half of all military deaths are E-5 and below. An Army E-5 three-stripe sergeant would have a widow pension of under $2,000 per month.The VA has "Dependents Indemnity Compensation," where if eligible a survivor might receive $1,300 per month. So, at best, the sergeant's widow (or widower) hopes for a modest $39,000 per year.

How far does that go? In Colorado, the average home mortgage cost is $1,700 per month, and with typical associated costs like taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance, a monthly cost of over $2,400 or $28,000 annually. You can do the math – that leaves $916 per month for food, transportation, insurance, clothing. 

Summary: Colorado Life did a thorough report on the money necessary to live in Colorado one needs 
$4,317.68 per month to live in Colorado if there is a mortgage involved. Oops – that leaves our widow short by over $12,000 per year. That's why the paltry $400-$600 partial property tax exemption is important. 

The burden of property tax is a huge reason so many citizens can never afford a home, and that's even more true for military folks. That's why so few junior military own homes at the time of death and why so few widows are affected by this proposed tax exemption. For me, I wish it was a total tax exemption as many states provide! The survivor of a service member who dies on active duty obviously have to make many, many compromises to live on $12,000 less per year than what "average" citizens need. 

17 March 2021

Coby Johnson's son Chris dropped us a note about his dad's Agent Orange VA award.

Not sure the best place to post this. My father, Wayne "Coby" Johnson succumbed to his fight with lung cancer on 9/20/20. 

He was a pilot and member of the 355th and 356th TAS at Rickenbacker and the 731st TAS at Westover. I would like to thank all of members of this community and this website specifically. 

Although he was initially denied his medical claim with the VA we were able to appeal the decision and he received the care and benefits he earned through the last year of his life. Thank you. https://www.wilmingtoncares.com/obituary/wayne-coby-johnson/

Thanks for writing, and God Bless your dad.

15 March 2021


Are you ineligible for VA benefits because you're a "traditional reservist?" If hearing injuries resulting from flight or aircraft maintenance duties might qualify you for VA compensation and other benefits. Here's how.
Traditional reservists aren't eligible for most VA benefits because our "active duty for training" doesn't count towards true veteran status. Regardless of how long one's initial active duty for basic and technical school might be, the law doesn't recognize that as "active service." VA recognizes completion of an active duty enlistment, or active duty during wartime to qualify a servicemember for benefits, but UTAs, annual tour, active duty for basic and other training are grouped into ineligible "active duty for training." No bennies.
BUT – there'a a big exception to that for any disabling injury or disease you might experience.
Tinnitus is just one such injury. That ringing in the ears, or wind noise or low hum is caused by loud noises. Noises like a C-123 or C-130 makes. Noises like an M-16 makes at 154dB.
Flyers, tank crews, infantry, artillery and others around loud noises in a military setting often suffer tinnitus, and VA recognizes that as a frequent disability - in fact, it is the most common disability veterans have.
And if you have tinnitus you might be entitled to VA care and compensation for that disability, and if you are, that makes you a veteran with all the benefits that wartime veterans receive.
I got into this recently to help an army reservist who had tinnitus from his time in basic training when he fired the M-14 rifle and did not have any ear protection. Noises of 85 dB and above can cause permanent hearing loss and tinnitus, and our aircraft are far noisier than that: The cockpit is steady at over 112 dB. The noise is worse in the rear!
After my altitude chamber ride at Edwards AFB I started flying in 1974. I recall that by 1975 or so we received the yellow foam earplugs and they provided some protection from noise hazards. But there was still significant noise reaching the inner ear to cause damage. This kind of damage is permanent and cumulative and can evidence itself in tinnitus and/or hearing loss even years later.
Here is my point in the VA's own words: “When a claim for service connection is based on a period of active duty for training, there must be evidence that the individual concerned became disabled as a result of a disease or injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty during the period of active duty for training.“
That is per 38 U.S.C. § 1131 (see also 38 U.S.C. § 1110; 38 C.F.R. § 3.303(a). See CAVC Hensley v. Brown – “claimant may establish direct service connection for a hearing disability initially manifest several years after separation from service on the basis of evidence showing that the current hearing loss is causally related to injury or disease suffered in service.”( 5 Vet. App. 155, 164 (1993).” Also see VA Training Letter 10-02 at 15 (rescinded re: incorporation into VBA Adjudication Procedures Manual (M21-1), pt. III, subpt. iv, ch. 4, § D.1-3)
VA compensation for a tinnitus disability is a modest $144 per month, but the real importance here is that a hearing injury establishes legal veteran status with all the benefits that attach to being a wartime veteran (we've been in a period of war ever since Desert Storm.) Sometimes there are secondary issues to hearing loss like depression or hypertension. Rarely, there have been vets getting up to 50% disability ($995/month) based on hearing loss and complications.
You might not need them now, but benefits include pension rights, medical and pharmacy (perhaps with modest co-payments,) rehab, hearing aids, VA home loan, education, and even a new program for caretakers of veterans faced with significant loss of "activities of daily life."
If you believe you have tinnitus or hearing loss, get advice from the VA hotline, one of the veterans' service organizations like DAV or VFW, or your city/state VA office. Get a claim entered immediately because benefits are dated from when VA gets your claim, not when they approve it months later.
I hope this helps someone!

30 May 2020

VA's C-123 Benefits for Reservists Helped Active Duty Veterans Also

I reviewed the March Board of Veterans Appeals decisions and was glad to see five Active Duty airmen win their appeals based on VA's C-123 rules. None of these vets would have succeeded without their claims reliance on our having convinced VA that C-123 duties, Reserve or Active Duty, between 1972-1986 provide for a presumption of exposure to Agent Orange. The benefits to them are tens of thousands of dollars each – congratulations!
In addition, there was one claim approved that I disagree with: a paratrooper claimed Agent Orange exposure merely by having jumped from a C-123 during his active duty years. This kind of infrequent, non-professional is not what VA had in mind when the C-123 eligibility rules were published. Lucky guy, but not from any merit on his part.

08 May 2020

The strange and troubling story of the C-123 and Agent Orange

Chapter One: ”Somebody fell out." "SOMEBODY FELL OUT!”
Those words shouted into the radio and our headsets by pilot Lt Col Art Sorenson flying in the trailing C-123 medium assault transport still haunt me painfully today. The man falling was Master Sergeant Laurent Barbeau, our loadmaster. It was the afternoon of September 1, 1979.
We’d been on a two-ship formation doing a cross country mission out of Westover AFB, Massachusetts. Down to Andrews, a little further south to NAS Hampton Roads, back up to NAS South Weymouth where our four crews (two flight crews and two aeromedical crews) enjoyed a fine seafood dinner together on Friday night. Trust New England restaurants to serve up the best chowder, lobster, scrod and clams. Hard to go wrong, especially because we had some crew from that area just south of Boston who knew the best spots.
Mary Griffin-Bales was on that trip and wrote me the other day she remembers the flights but not the restaurant, and that Gale French was one of the aircraft commanders. Although we were all together for the flights and that Friday night dinner, it was all of 41 years ago and today I can’t bring up a memory of Laurent (“Larry”) at all until the next day’s events unfolded.
And at dinner, remember, everyone: “Twelve Hours Bottle to Throttle.” No drinking within twelve hours of flying, so wine early in our dinner was enjoyed but no after-dinner drinks. I do remember that it was a particularly pleasant time, the kind that when you’re old make for good memories of good friends together. I’d been giving no-notice check rides each leg of our trip. Thus far, nobody got a Qual 3 so no hurt feelings, disappointments or eye daggers behind my back: I could always count on a frosty relationship when I handed out Qual 2 or Qual 3, but they kept me working. The official idea was that an FE no-notice keeps crews aware that a little surprise check-ride could land on them at any time – so be ready at all times.
Saturday morning (September 1) we did a hot off-load back at Westover to leave our two aeromedical crews. They’d finished their flight training. We then made the short hop west and across the Hudson to Stewart Army Airfield to pick up troops of the 10th Special Forces Group. We often trained together because their base at Devens was about an hour drive from Westover. They did Army stuff, and we did our Air Force stuff, some of which often had to be done together.
This particular Saturday we were picking up about 30 soldiers to take over Fort Devens (now closed) near Ayer, Massachusetts where they’d parachute down to the Army’s runway. We joked that the Army loved our unique frequent flyer program which was the reverse of anything you’s want: By counting up miles you were forced to make yet another flight in our plane.
Why a joke? The C-123 Provider wasn’t pressurized, and we generally kept to 10,000 feet altitude or lower. Flying into rain and clouds wet down the inside of the airplane so badly we’d first don raincoats or ponchos, earning the most confused looks from passengers yet to see what was about to happen. The plane featured two (dis)comfort settings on the thermostat – far too hot or way too cold. It was also loud. Extra loud. Back then our issued hearing protection was so dreadfully inadequate that today there’s a bunch of old guys like me with tinnitus wearing VA hearing aids. But paratroopers loved the C-123 because, silly boys, they thought it was a great platform to jump from.
Other drawbacks to this old transport included no autopilot, no bathroom (just a urinal that was particularly challenging in rough bumpy weather) and no coffee pot. The latter was a cruel, cruel oversight when the plane was first designed. Speaking of design, the C-123 Provider is the only airplane with versions as an unpowered glider, two-engine plane, two turboprops, four jet airplane, ski plane, bomber, flare plane, amphibian, and hybrid with two reciprocating engines and two little J85 jets. I’ll add it had zero chance of survival in war!
Key advantage keeping these old transports in service: short field takeoffs and landings. The plane could land on half a postage stamp, maybe less. And it was paid for, always the primary Pentagon motivator. As I said, the Army loved it, especially in Europe where it could use so many more roads for landings. Why should we worry we had no chance to survive combat?
Another feature with many of our 12 C-123 transports was the stench. That’s right…stench! They’d been Agent Orange spray aircraft during Vietnam and sprayed the herbicide until 1971. Even eight years later, the stench of Agent Orange and sometimes also malathion (sprayed for mosquito control) still lingered. It wasn’t merely an odor or a smell. No! It was several orders of magnitude worse, past funny or annoying, to the point that occasionally crews became nauseated and we had to terminate the flight for safety. More later in these pages on that point. Just remember: STENCH! Look for a bucket nausea.
You might have heard of some of the nicknames for C-123 aircraft. Ponderous Polly, White Elephant, Barn Door, Patches, Dumpster, Thunder Pig. You get the idea...the airplane was not a glamor airplane – rather, our Rodney Dangerfield of aviation! It was a flying truck, some jokesters said. And what does a truck haul? Often garbage. Somehow crews on cargo airplanes got stuck with the moniker “Trashhaulers” so we took it on with a perverse pride. Better than “Fighter Puke,” we thought.
When I had occasions to express our appreciation for help from legislators and others, I made up an “Honorary Trash hauler” certificate. It was meant to be an honor, but it certainly took some explanation to make the honor understood.
Don’t confuse Stewart Army Airfield in Newburgh New York (right at the New York end of the bridge between Massachusetts and New York) with Fort Stewart Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. Keeping things simple is not a characteristic trait of military people. It is kind of like Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Fort Bragg, California.
Back to our trip, 41 years ago. We were doing normal, everyday Army and Air Force stuff. Once down at Stewart we chocked the airplane, sent somebody to fill the coffee and water jugs and took a short break waiting for the Army to bus across the field to join us. BTW, Stewart Army Airfield was a joint civil-military base supporting West Point and we’d been there dozens of times. West Point liked our airplanes also, and because Westover at this time had C-123 as well as C-130 Hercules transports we were able to handle a wide range of complex missions for the cadets and local Army, Navy and Marine Corps Reserve units as well.
Picture a nice sunny mid-day, hot coffee in hand and still full from a pleasant breakfast back at Weymouth, with everyone gathered around as Army jumpmasters and our two crews reviewed objectives and safety requirements.
Even though this was a normal chore, it had to be done by the checklist. The Holy Checklist. The old joke “when all else fails, read the checklist” is just that…only a joke. NOTHING is supposed to be done without everyone following the checklist. We went through our checklist for Air Force chores while the Army did theirs, and then we got together to do a checklist for common chores. As always, we also reviewed the “Dash-One,” our emergency procedures checklist.
Troops jumping from a C-123B

One of the checklist items for us was that the C-123 troop doors in the back of the aircraft (one on each side) had to be removed and strapped down in the tail. This allows paratroops to get out fast and safely, nothing to hang them up at the door. This door removal is done by the flight engineer and, if one is aboard, also perhaps the loadmaster. Retired pilot LtCol “Big John” Harris was close friends with Larry and recalls Larry’s preference for doing this chore himself. Each was required to have a helmet on and to either wear a parachute or stay tethered to the airplane – pretty logical with huge doors open in the back of our airplane!
All the details covered, it was time load up and see if those engines would still turn the propellers. Yup, all was well and up into the heavens we trudged, not too high, and certainly not too fast. Never fast in a C-123! In our Jet Age, it is probably accurate to describe the C-123 as the most never airplane in the history of the Air Force. I’m sure somebody has beat me to create a joke that the two J85 jets were hung on the wings only to “glam” up the old bird and try to get it some respect.
We headed southeast into Connecticut, then turned north to fly over the Connecticut River and up to Devens. The Army guys were busy getting their “battle rattle” together while Laurent and another of our crew went to remove the troop doors to be tied down. It usually wasn’t Laurent’s job but he liked doing it somehow.
A moment later we heard it.
”Somebody fell out. SOMEBODY FELL OUT!” Art Sorenson’s voice was tight and we could hear the horror in it. Almost instantly both aircraft banked hard in opposite directions. A couple of the Special Forces guys who’d been standing to get their gear in order were knocked to the deck, but a moment later everyone’s face was smack up to a window to try to see.
We heard the flight engineer’s voice on the headset. He was still aboard so we knew it had to be Laurent who’d fallen out somehow.
My face was right at the window also, but all I saw was the airplane door which had fallen out with Laurent. Light aircraft aluminum and a big, fairly flat thing, I saw it fluttering like a leaf. But nobody caught sight of Laurent. Our hopes were up, but there was no sight of the him or the chute he’d been wearing.
The paratroopers got ready to jump and rescue him if Laurent was spotted, as they had several medics with them.
Our two aircraft searched the local area but as hope faded we returned to Westover without dropping the paratroops at Devens. One peacetime accident didn’t need any possibility of another. Once on the ramp at Westover we began organizing to drive back into Connecticut to do a ground search which the state troopers had already initiated. A few minutes later that activity stopped as word came by telephone that Laurent had been found. Dead.
An accident investigation revealed that despite the careful briefing we’d all had back at Steward on how to do the drop, Laurent seems to have put on his parachute but removed his helmet at some point. When removing the door he’d also done that incorrectly, and it must have become detached and hit his head as they both fell out.
Larry’s death rattled me. I’d been an Army medic for six years, and Air Force flight medic another five before I was commissioned: I’d been around death before. I guess this was different because it happened and we all had to keep focused on our duties for hours before actually letting it soak in. Once we landed at Westover one of my friends, Bob Boyd, came to my plane to say that at first, people on base thought it was me who’d fallen out. Tears came then. I didn’t have good self-control for a while.
September had another significant flight safety issue yet to come up, although without the drama of Laurent’s death. Several of our unit’s twelve C-123 aircraft had been Agent Orange spray planes during Vietnam. For years we’d complained that an overwhelming stench made flying them hazardous as crews became nauseated. The worst of the lot was our famous “Patches,” tail number 54362.
It was named Patches because of the patches… tons of battle damage repaired during Vietnam. Seven Purple Heart ribbons were painted over the crew door to recognize men who’d earned them flying Patches. An early issue of Air Force Magazine credits Patches with over 500 repairs where bullets, shells and rockets had hit her. By some combat damage reports at Fairchild Aviation in 1982, Patches suffered over 1500 hits!
The Air Force noted the frequent scrubbed missions that haunted Patches…missions where the crews had to return to Westover or land just anywhere because they were nauseated. I flew often with another flight instructor, Paul Bailey, who vomited each and every time he flew Patches, but after that moment’s illness he was able to tolerate the stench.
The plane’s record and years of aircrew complaints finally resulted in the Air Force Armstrong Laboratories sending scientists to check out Patches and her problems. This, remember, is 1979. Although we were worried about Agent Orange, any actual knowledge of the dangers of the dioxin contaminating Agent Orange wasn’t well established yet.
For more than another decade, both the Air Force and the VA were absolutely firm in refusing to acknowledge any health issue at all other than chloracne, a skin eruption cared for by VA only if experienced within a year of exposure to the herbicide. Beyond that decades of the official line: Agent Orange = no problem from both the VA and USAF perspectives.
Conway and his scientific colleagues completed their evaluation of Patches and submitted their conclusion, later called the “Conway Report,” to our base clinic and the wing commander, Brigadier General Don Haugen. “No problem, no health risk, sorry about the stink” would be a fair summary of their findings. They also offered useless advice to use room deodorizer and Dawn detergent to try cleaning some stench from the airplanes. We already had, with no effect. Many times by lots of us!
But those Conway findings were so very, very wrong. Tests back in 1979 could not readily identify dioxin, the deadly toxin in Agent Orange. Also, Agent Orange itself was officially considered fairly harmless (although not by its inventor,) and veterans never got the VA or Air Force to correct those errors. Instead, relief was denied until passage by Congress of the Agent Orange Act of 1991…against powerful opposition from VA, the Air Force, and both Dow Chemical and Monsanto, the manufacturers.
Conway confirmed the Agent Orange contamination, but reported that it posed no health hazard in keeping with the then-official Air Force view that Agent Orange was harmless. Conway did, however, take pains to explain that the nauseating stench could only be decontaminated (they used the mild term “deodorized”) by major depot-level efforts costing over $30,000 per airframe. In time, those few thousands “saved by” skipping decontamination would later cost taxpayers over $41,000,000 (thus far) in veterans benefits to C-123 vets and their survivors.
Let’s review the timeline: Laurent’s death on September 1, 1979, and the Conway Report submitted to wing authorities on an unknown day that very month.
Of particular note is one part of Conway’s conclusion found on page 2 of the report:
Conway Report conclusion, page 2

So, Conway raised no alarms and dismissed the aircrews’ concerns. Not until June 2015 would the Air Force and VA finally disagree with Conway when the Institute of Medicine C-123 report was submitted to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
I worked for General Haugen, our wing commander back then, for over a year. He was a superb leader and a warrior our wing would follow anywhere. I admired him and still do, long after his own death.
The general had two things on his plate regarding C-123 safety: Laurent’s tragic death and the C-123 toxicology report. Both issues had the aircrews rattled, and Haugen addressed them together in his September 1, 1979 column in our base newspaper.
BG Haugen's assurance in base paper that the C-123 was as safe as possible.

I know the general was absolutely convinced of this or he’d never have said it.
But he was wrong. Conway was wrong. The Air Force was wrong. The VA was wrong. However, I was right as events would prove
I first grew concerned about C-123 contamination in early 2011 after my heart attack, heart surgery and prostate cancer diagnosis. Other C-123 crew also shared their illnesses, which by 2011 had become identified by science and the VA (yes, they can be and are often separate in their views) as associated with Agent Orange. I filed a claim with the VA and it “only” took them a year to get around to denying me. The Air Force ignored my two IG requests.
By this point I’d studied the issue intensely, but in-depth toxicology and epidemiology weren’t in my academic background. I sought expert help, first turning to the Oregon Health Science University’s toxicology lab. What luck! The director was a pilot and loved waiving hands and doing pilot talk. Dr. Fred Berman heard me out, then invited me to his home so we could start analyzing all available information about C-123 Agent Orange contamination. Before showing up on his doorstep I got results on two CDs from a Freedom of Information Act request I filed with the Air Force.
It proved a treasure trove of information, sadly much of it sneaky stuff about how the Air Force had kept a lid on contamination information expressly to avoid triggering exposure claims to the VA. Berman was the first scientist who agreed with me that test data from 1979 on established C-123 Agent Orange contamination, and that contamination proved harmful to the crews’ health in the same way it had for “troops on the ground” in Vietnam.
Military tests on C-123 planes between 1979 and 2009 continued to show dioxin contamination. Official emails and letters stressed that the aircraft were too contaminated for surplus resale, and yet too contaminated for a landfill. Surplus stored C-123s were so contaminated that Air Force lawyers informed their command that the EPA had a valid threat to fine $3,400,000,000 (yes, that’s $3.4 billion with a b) for illegal hazmat storage of old airplanes in that Arizona desert boneyard.
Other memos in 1996 from the Air Force Office of Environmental Law directed that contamination results “be kept in official channels only” to prevent confusion by veterans who might consider our health to have been endangered.
Please note that for years the Air Force itself officially described these transports as “the Agent Orange airplanes” but only until exposure claims from veterans arrived. From that point, officially speaking, there was and never had been any contamination.
While the VA and Air Force continued for years denying 100% of veterans’ disability claims for C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims, USAF test results labeling our old aircraft as “a danger to public health.” Also “contaminated on all test surfaces” statements were only available once I’d filed lawsuits. In this, we were blessed with several law firms’ generous pro bono representation to enforce the Freedom of Information Act. Yale University’s Michael Wishnie, Dean of the School of Law, has helped us for years.
A point about this first FOIA: I was successful getting records only because once the Department of Justice reviewed my complaint about the Air Force records and actions, they directed the military to comply “forthwith.” The Department of Justice, responsible for protecting the Air Force interests, instead took my side. Somebody there is a hero! Some of my other FOIA requests took as long as two years and more lawsuits, rather than the twenty days specified in the FOIA guidelines.
Over the years on this effort I contacted many veterans or military affairs reporters for newspapers, including the Washington Post, Air Force Times, Huffpost and veteran-oriented magazines like The American Legion, The Officer and VFW. Articles, stories on NPR and videos about us started getting published, the most influential being in 2013 in the Washington Post. The FOIA materials revealed to the reporters what VA and the Air Force did, and the stories that were published did much to establish our credibility.
After Dr. Fred Berman delivered his opinion that I, and other C-123 veterans, had all been exposed with harm to our health, I contacted Dr. Jeannie Stellman at the Columbia University School of Public Health. She’d taken the VA on in support of Vietnam veterans when they first started experiencing illnesses and sought VA care. As with Berman, I took the documents I had and she submitted her opinion to the VA confirming my exposure as well as others who’d crewed or repaired the C-123.
A powerful voice for veterans is the American Legion, largest veterans organization in the country. Dr. Stellman and I met in Washington to visit various authorities, with our first stop was at the American Legion. Their president and board heard us out, and even permitted us to write the national resolution for their annual convention. She and I then had a chilly meeting with VA and Senator Burr’s staff.
Later, I learned that VA’s talking points had been already been decided and their baseless opposition was formed by agreement among their staff but with no research and only by disregarding what CDC and NIH had told them. VA said, “It must be remembered that there is no bio-availability of TCDD in these aircraft. The potential for exposure to Agent Orange and TCDD and subsequent development adverse health effects from flying in potentially contaminated C-123 aircraft years after the Vietnam War is essentially Zero.”
My next pillar of support came only by chance while I researched various precise meanings for the key toxicological term “exposed.” I thought I understood the term and that our exposures were exactly that. I looked deeper to see what VA was doing, and read their talking points memo. Exposure is a key term appears everywhere in the law and in VA implementation of its duties under the law.
Major point here: I found in the Federal Register and in the law itself that exposure is the only requirement for benefits if disabled. The law does not mention bioavailability! The agreed-upon definition of exposure is made by the CDC/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. To block our claims for exposure which was the only criteria, VA decided to say we had no exposure because our exposures could not prove bioavailability.
I understand the confusion this causes others. Here was a brain-twister that took some time to see them doing, and a longer time to show VA was wrong.
Reading through their publications I was convinced ATSDR had a responsibility to evaluate my claim for having been exposed – I wrote them, summarized what I had thus far and they really rolled out their big guns!
The ATSDSR assistant director, Dr. Tom Sinks, opined that I’d been exposed, but went further, writing that C-123 veterans have a 200-fold greater risk of cancers than unexposed people. He wrote that our exposure aboard the C-123 was 182-times greater than limits for dioxin exposure published by the Army’s TG312 as well as the State of New York. His report went to the Air Force and the VA, but was either ignored or marginalized. He then had Dr. Christopher Portier, his ATSDR director, write a similar report which VA had more trouble ignoring. Later, Rear Admiral R. Ikeda of the US Public Health Service wrote her concurrence with the ATSDR findings.
These were only the first two federal government agreements that C-123 crews had been exposed. More came from the NIH and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Center. Wow…lots of support. The NIEHS director even conferenced with VA leadership to try to get them to listen…without success but it sure got her mad enough her agency hammered on VA for the next two years. Every official with an opinion disagreed with VA’s opposition to C-123 exposure claims.
I also asked for and received many expert opinions agreeing with me that exposure has no element of bioavailability in it, and that these are separate terms in science and medicine.
Then VA’s Jim Sampsel dismissed everything from NIH, CDC, the medical schools, everything – saying VA would accept Agent Orange information about C-123 veterans only from military sources. Okay, I thought. I can handle that: first, I solicited opinions from senior US Public Health Service officers (a rear admiral and an O6 captain) because their leaders are, by law, military officers. And second, the Army’s Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC, where VA is supposed to get Agent Orange exposure information) then emailed Sampsel that military evidence was on hand.
Sampsel’s response was to refuse any evidence or opinions unless he first requested it. To make sure nothing would reach him, Sampsel thereafter refused to request or receive anything. This is all true and perhaps funny, but sad. His strategy led him to deceive Congress and VA leadership like General Shinseki by saying “the overwhelming preponderance of evidence” was against our exposures.
Sample email by Sampsel telling everyone in VA "overwhelming preponderance of evidence" was against our claims. He never included the fact that he would only reference VA itself as the authority. He and others published web pages with their views, then cited those pages as "scientific proof."

There was so much more, from twenty medical schools, schools of public health, and independent researchers, even twenty members of the Concerned Scientists and Physicians who wrote VA. Also from The Hatfield Group, a private contractor expert with dioxin issues.
VA ignored every bit of this. They offered lip service about fairness in the form of a couple meetings with me, several of the scientists supporting me, and staffers from Senators Burr and Merkley. Disappointing, but in doing this VA committed a fatal error: they told CDC that CDC wasn’t qualified to comment. In one meeting, the Director of VBA Compensation, Mr. Tom Murphy, told two C-123 veterans and his own staff that our claims were not permitted to be approved, regardless of CTC, NIH or any other expert anywhere, in or out of government.
My, oh my. That sure raised some official CDC and NIH hackles when I passed the information along to them! At this point CDC made my case their holy war with the VA and staffers like Jim Sampsel, VBA’s “Agent Orange subject matter expert! CDC never forgave that foolish slight.
While those experts were yelling at each other over the years, I tried to understand how VA could possibly disagree with the fact that C-123 crews had been exposed. Then I found what they’d done. In a 2012 poster display (never even21 peer reviewed or judged) at the Society of Toxicology VHA’s Post Deployment Public Health staffers simply redefined the word exposure to prevent claims of exposure.
Remember I wrote that the ATSDR definition of exposure is the one commonly accepted in science, including the federal government and the VA? Well, staffers at VA redefined exposure and printed a poster that said “exposure = contamination field = bioavailability.” But, Dr. T. Walters and her colleagues were simply parroting VA’s chief Agent Orange defender, Dr. Alvin Young. Young and VA deceived by blending two toxicological terms to make one: science doesn’t work that way, although VA tried do so for for three years.
VA poster at 2012 Society of Toxicology
That was way wrong but nobody caught it for two years. In standard toxicology, even the resource VA cites in court cases, exposure is contact with something via (1) ingestion, (2) inhalation or (3) dermal contact. Simple. But VA was magnificently sneaky, insisting that just in the Agent Orange-C-123 issue, VA would use its own definition and blend in an altogether separate but related term, “bioavailability.” Pay attention: VA inventing its own definition of exposure by blending it with bioavailability blocked every exposure claim.
VA then refused every C-123 disability claim by insisting that, without proof of bioavailability, no exposure could be acknowledged. Oh, by the way: there was no test for tissue dioxin bioavailability decades after our flying, and VA rules even prohibited tests once they were developed. So VA denied our scientifically-confirmed exposure, unscientifically claiming no exposure per Sampsel’s VA rules for C-123 claims.
Do you see that VA’s trouble making a standard scientific definition non-standard? It was like if a pilot decided she’d redefine...just for her flights...the basic term “altitude.” Everyone else would be cruising the skies per one definition but she’d be doing it differently. You can see aluminum falling from the sky and almost hear the crash trucks.
Just as with other technical or scientific settings, VA use of standard and accepted definitions of basic medical and toxicological terms is vital: VA follows the rules of science. But not with the C-123 where VA brewed up their own definition of exposure to block exposure claims. It took Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Toxicology Center to out the VA on this deception, and VA managed to ignored her for over a year.
Somehow I needed to challenge VA directly. They ignored my input and ignored anyone else who argued with them. In a magnificent stroke of luck, our daughter and family relocated to Fort Collins and my wife and I soon got lonely enough without the grandchildren that we followed along. This proved a blessing!
I wanted to argue at the 2014 Society of Toxicology that VA had been unethical in their 2012 poster display. Like science and other hard subjects, ethics wasn’t part of my academic background although I could probably spell the word by that point. Here in Fort Collins I started asking at Colorado State University for names Quickly, I came across Dr. William Farland, retiring executive vice president at CSU who also had retired from the EPA.
Heaven had smiled on me once again. Farland was a true dioxin expert. He also knew the proper way for me to prepare my presentation at the Society of Toxicology conference in Phoenix. He became my coach and guided me around several fatal flaws that I’d have missed in my “counter-poster” below. This challenged VA peculiar science, and I also identified VA’s intrinsic and extrinsic ethical failures as well. Note here that my ethics complaints raised directly with the VA National Center for Healthcare Ethics were useless, even though as a patient I had the right to get help from them.
Our poster accusing VA of ethical failures

The president of the Society of Toxicology was so miffed at what VA pulled with their 2012 poster that she herself sponsored my poster in rebuttal. It didn’t hurt that she was head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at NIH.
I might also mention here that VA folks had for years exchanged mildly unflattering internal email comments about me. One of their consultants, Dr. Alvin Young, wrote that he had no respect for C-123 vets who were “trash-haulers, freeloaders looking for a tax-free dollar from a sympathetic congressman.” Later, VA paid Dr. Young $600,000 in a highly questionable no-bid sole-source contract present VA opposition to own testimony as we appeared together before the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Young, by the way, helped weaponize Agent Orange for use in the Vietnam War. His whole career was Agent Orange.
Lots of push-back was standard with the Department of Veterans Affairs when instead their legal duty was to advocate for and protect my health. Eventually, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences evaluated the testimony from both of us and concluded I was correct. The committee took nearly a year to complete their investigation to present to the VA.
Just before the IOM committee was to begin hearings, a group of scientists headed by Dr. Peter Lurker published an article defending our veteran’s argument of exposure, and explaining where VA and the Air Force had been mistaken. Published in April 2014, this proved pivotal in laying bare the scientific errors and plain deceptions VA employed. The IOM included a brutal critique of the VA and Air Force, saying that the government always interpreted data in a best-case approach instead of the standard in health issues which is worst-case.
Further, IOM “noted that those from in the military or associated with VA tended to minimize the possibility of an increased risk of exposure and adverse health outcomes among the AF Reservists.” Ouch. In science-speak, that was hard slap on both cheeks, dismissing VA, USAF and Al Young.
IOM report in hand, VA still stalled for another half a year, refusing all care and benefits: Editors of several papers, including the Air Force Times wrote that it was time for VA “to stop embarrassing itself.” When the Senate told VA that no VA nominations would be confirmed until C-123 veterans were dealt with, VA finally caved and in June 2015 with new regulations providing for full medical care and other benefits for our 2100 veterans and our survivors.
The Office of Management and Budget says that my project has cost the taxpayer $41,000,000 thus far, in providing earned benefits tied to our veterans’ recognized line of duty disabilities. This compares quite poorly to the $120,000 the Air Force supposedly “saved” by not bothering with proper recommended safety decontamination once our C-123s returned from Vietnam and before they were returned to service in our squadrons.
Secretary McDonald met with me the summer of 2015 here in Denver for our input in drafting new regulations. I was most grateful to hear him say, “It never should have been this hard nor taken this long,” It was particularly rewarding to hear him say, “It is the first time the VA has established a special category of Agent Orange exposure for troops who weren't on the ground or didn't serve on inland waterways in Vietnam.
However, I’m amazed and pained that VA officials...even the manager of their VBA’s “Agent Orange Desk” Mr. Jim Sampsel, still refute the herbicides’ known dangers.
This wraps up nine years I’ve spent on this project. I still have a couple things in process, including a suit in the US District Court of Washington DC asking the Air Force issue line of duty determinations for early Agent Orange exposure. While it is satisfying that our crews are now protected by VA, I’m 73, now in a wheelchair and I simply don’t get those years back to use for myself and the family.
It was the VA’s job to have done this, not mine. Most veterans are afraid that, given a similar problem with a different cause in the future, VA will do the same thing. Veterans say VA will “Delay, delay until we die.” And indeed, every month that VA stalls on other legitimate issues where their decisions should have been pro-veteran but weren’t, that’s VA budget dollars saved. VA has never advocated for a disability to be granted “service connected” status for benefits, regardless how obvious such as with mustard gas, radiation, Camp Lejeune water poisoning and Agent Orange.
VA budget dollars were saved by delaying valid disability claims from the first filing around 2002 until 2015 and by refusing to let decisions be retroactive, but only on the backs of many veterans. This means a totally disabled C-123 vet (or the survivor in about twenty cases) with a perfect claim forfeited medical care, state benefits and disability compensation for, in the worst case I have found, thirteen years.
Thirteen years with no income or just whatever could be earned while battling heart disease, ALS, cancer or other ailment. And paying for one’s own medical care because VA refused and, so often, so did private insurance because Agent Orange is an “instrumentality of war” and most health insurance contracts have a war stipulation. Thirteen years with VA hospital doors blocking any and all medical care. My own claim lost only four years of benefits...I was lucky.

When you’re next in Dayton, Ohio, please visit the National Museum of the Air Force . There, back in the Southwest Asia War hall, you’ll see our airplane, Patches. With all her patches!