VA Braces for a New Front in the Agent Orange Battle

A group of post-Vietnam War veterans say their illnesses are tied to the herbicide. So far, Veterans Affairs isn’t buying it.

Two U.S. Air Force Fairchild UC-123B Provider "Ranch Hand" aircraft over South Vietnam in 1962. "Operation Ranch Hand" was a U.S. Military operation during part of the Vietnam War, lasting from 1962 until 1971. It involved spraying an estimated 72 mio. ltr. (19 mio. US gal.) of (toxic) defoliants over rural areas of South Vietnam in an attempt to deprive the Viet Cong of vegetation cover and food. The USAF were marked as South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) planes. (U.S. Air Force photo)
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
Oct. 7, 2014, 4 p.m.

In 2011, Wes Carter was talk­ing to a hand­ful of friends when he real­ized they had something in com­mon: They all flew on the C-123 planes after the Vi­et­nam War, and they were all sick.

Dur­ing the Vi­et­nam War, C-123s were used to spray the herb­i­cide Agent Or­ange. Al­though the planes were be­ing used for cargo and med­ic­al flights by the time Carter served after the war, he and his fel­low vet­er­ans be­lieve their ill­nesses—which range from dia­betes to can­cer—are tied to their time on the planes between 1972 and 1982.

“We were phys­ic­ally scrap­ing goop from nooks and cran­nies try­ing to get the thing as clean as pos­sible, be­cause there’s quite an odor to it,” said Carter, 68, who flew on a C-123 plane and be­lieves that his pro­state can­cer and heart dis­ease are tied to his time in the ser­vice.

So far, C-123 vet­er­ans have had little luck get­ting their dis­ab­il­ity claims gran­ted.

Last year, C-123 pi­lot Paul Bailey, who died in Oc­to­ber 2013 after suf­fer­ing from pro­state can­cer, be­came the first of Carter’s group to get his ex­pos­ure to Agent Or­ange re­cog­nized without hav­ing to seek help from the Board of Vet­er­ans Ap­peals.

“I’ve said that be­cause they’ve gran­ted one, that be­comes the de facto stand­ard, why not grant them all?” said Thomas Bandzul, a law­yer rep­res­ent­ing the C-123 vet­er­ans.

The Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment said in a Ju­ly 2013 let­ter to Bailey that the “pre­pon­der­ance of the evid­ence sug­gests that you were ex­posed to herb­i­cide on­board the U.S. Air Force C-123K air­craft.” But the claims are con­sidered on a case-by-case basis, mean­ing the de­cision isn’t factored in when VA staff look at oth­er dis­ab­il­ity re­quests.

The C-123 crew isn’t the first group of vet­er­ans to ac­cuse the VA of be­ing un­will­ing to re­cog­nize that their ill­nesses are tied to Agent Or­ange ex­pos­ure. For dec­ades, vet­er­ans who served in the Vi­et­nam War tried to get dis­ab­il­ity com­pens­a­tion, to no avail. It wasn’t un­til al­most 20 years after the war that the VA began to link cer­tain ill­nesses in Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans to Agent Or­ange. They are still press­ing the de­part­ment to cov­er more ill­nesses, with former Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki in 2010 ty­ing four more dis­eases to Agent Or­ange for Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans.

And, as be­fore, the VA and the C-123 vet­er­ans each be­lieve they have sci­ence on their side.

The VA said in an email that any Agent Or­ange the C-123 vet­er­ans were ex­posed to would have been so­lid­i­fied, which wouldn’t lead to “ad­verse long-term health ef­fects.”

And that’s be­cause dried Agent Or­ange does not “read­ily pen­et­rate in­to hu­man skin,” mean­ing it would be dif­fi­cult for C-123 vet­er­ans to ab­sorb Agent Or­ange in­to their sys­tems, ac­cord­ing to a sep­ar­ate 1991 study cited by the VA.

The VA re­viewed that re­port, and more than a dozen oth­ers, throughout 2011 and 2012 and de­term­ined that it’s un­likely that C-123 vet­er­ans were ex­posed to Agent Or­ange, and if they were, it was at levels small enough that it wouldn’t im­pact their health.

But there’s also a swath of sci­entif­ic evid­ence that dis­agrees with the VA.

Most not­ably, the Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Re­gistry, part of the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment, said in 2013 that it could not “ex­clude in­hal­a­tion [or in­ges­tion] ex­pos­ure to TCDD [com­monly re­ferred to as di­ox­in, a chem­ic­al in­cluded in Agent Or­ange] while work­ing on con­tam­in­ated air­craft.” It con­cluded that “air­crew op­er­at­ing in this, and sim­il­ar, en­vir­on­ments were ex­posed to TCDD.”

The mil­it­ary stopped us­ing the C-123 planes in 1982. In the late ‘90s, Air Force of­fi­cials at Wright-Pat­ter­son Air Force Base in Ohio real­ized that a num­ber of C-123 planes sold to oth­er coun­tries “may have been con­tam­in­ated by re­sid­ual pesti­cides/herb­i­cides” in­clud­ing Agent Or­ange, ac­cord­ing to a 1997 Air Force Se­cur­ity As­sist­ance Cen­ter memo.

The memo notes that Air Force Se­cur­ity As­sist­ance Cen­ter headquar­ters staff be­come aware of the prob­lem after the Gen­er­al Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion tried to sell some of the planes in Ari­zona. One of the planes was de­term­ined to be con­tam­in­ated, and so the Air Force pre­sumed that—un­less they had evid­ence to sug­gest oth­er­wise—all of the C-123 planes were con­tam­in­ated.

A bi­par­tis­an group of law­makers, led by Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Burr and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jeff Merkley, have pressed for the VA to re­cog­nize C-123 vet­er­ans ex­pos­ure. But their ef­forts are largely on hold as Con­gress grapples with the lar­ger de­part­ment scan­dal, and a gov­ern­ment agency stud­ies the Agent Or­ange claims.

The de­cid­ing factor could come later this month. The In­sti­tute of Medi­cine is ex­pec­ted to re­lease a re­port de­term­in­ing if there is “an ex­cess risk of ad­verse health” for the C-123 crew mem­bers.

But if the in­sti­tute says that the C-123 crews were ex­posed to harm­ful levels, it could cre­ate more head­aches for the VA.

Bandzul said that Al­is­on Hickey, the VA un­der sec­ret­ary for be­ne­fits, has prom­ised to fol­low the find­ings of the in­sti­tute’s re­port.

But the roughly 2,000 mem­bers of the C-123 crews are a small frac­tion of the more than 22 mil­lion total in the vet­er­ans com­munity. And grant­ing be­ne­fits to the post-Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans could give new life to on­go­ing fights over Agent Or­ange ex­pos­ure between the VA and Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans who served at sea, also known as blue-wa­ter vet­er­ans, or those who served on bases where the chem­ic­al was stored.

“You could smell the stuff in the air, every time that they fueled a plane. It was un­be­liev­able,” Bandzul said. “… So we’re won­der­ing if that group [who served on bases where it was stored] is go­ing to be next.”

In the mean­time, Carter hopes the In­sti­tute of Medi­cine will be fair, but is hes­it­ant to be­lieve that things will im­prove. “We feel that the deck had been stacked against us,” he said. “VA took an ad­versari­al po­s­i­tion in­stead of a neut­ral po­s­i­tion against us”

But Carter ar­gues that if he was able to change his mind on the harms of Agent Or­ange ex­pos­ure, the VA should, too. He said he didn’t be­lieve ex­pos­ure was harm­ful un­til his fath­er, a Vi­et­nam War vet­er­an who was ex­posed to Agent Or­ange, died from pro­state can­cer.

“The VA even said, ‘You have a fam­ily his­tory of pro­state can­cer,’ ” Carter said. “No, we have a his­tory of be­ing war­ri­ors, there’s a dif­fer­ence.”

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