WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s been a long battle, but after years of fighting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide medical benefits to a unique group of Air Force personnel, Wes Carter says he’s finally won.
The VA has announced a new regulation that will expand eligibility for medical benefits to a select group of Air Force Veterans and Air Force Reserve personnel who were exposed to Agent Orange through contact with contaminated C-123 aircraft that had been used in Vietnam.
The planes were used to spray Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants from 1961 to 1971 as part of the U.S. military’s herbicidal warfare program in Vietnam, known as Operation Ranch Hand. But the planes were actively used by the Air Force after the war ended.
After the C-123’s work in Vietnam in 1971, the plane was re-purposed and transferred to tactical airlift units of the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard and used for routine cargo and medical evacuation missions, work that lasted for 10 years.
During that decade, Carter, who’s now 68 and lives in Fort Collins, Colo., served as an Air Force medical service officer on UC-123s, a variant of the C-123. In 2011, he was diagnosed with potentially fatal prostate cancer that a VA urological oncologist told him likely came from Agent Orange contact.
Carter has long led the C-123 Veterans Association — a group that has advocated for veterans' benefits due to Agent Orange exposure from working on and around C-123 aircraft after the Vietnam War. He says many of his former UC-123 crew members have already died of diseases commonly linked to Agent Orange exposure. He hopes the VAs decision to start providing benefits will prevent any further heartache.
“Nobody should have to endure this kind of unhappy struggle without any help,” he said. Hopefully now, they won’t have to.“
Under the new VA ruling, Air Force and Air Force Reserve flight, medical and ground maintenance crew members who served on the contaminated C-123s are now presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange during their service. This presumption will make it easier for the veterans who are impacted to establish entitlement for benefits if they develop an Agent Orange-related health condition. Those with conditions related to Agent Orange are now eligible for VA disability compensation and medical care and their surviving dependents are eligible for dependency compensation and burial benefits.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said the decision to expand benefits follows a 2015 report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine on Post-Vietnam Dioxin Exposure in Agent Orange-Contaminated C-123 Aircraft.
The report found evidence that as many as 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force personnel who worked on ORH C-123 aircraft from Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange.
“Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do,” McDonald said in a press release.
While Carter says the decision does represent a win for him and other airmen like him, there were some compromises made with the VA.
“There’s a piece about no retro-activity,” Carter says. “Which means claims that have been submitted and denied before (June 19, 2015) have to be resubmitted.”
Carter’s Agent Orange saga represents a wide umbrella of issues, including a formal complaint he filed against Hill Air Force Base. Carter alleged the base failed to release important information about an April 2010 program where the Air Force began recycling 18 Vietnam War-era UC-123K aircraft that were stored at the service’s Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group.
Hill’s 505th Aircraft Sustainment Squadron was responsible for program management support for the UC-123K. Carter’s complaint remains unresolved.
For more information on applying for the new Agent Orange related benefits, including affected units, Air Force Specialty Codes and dates of service for affected crew members, and a listing of Agent Orange-related conditions, visit www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/agentorange-c123.asp.
Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.