HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A retired Air Force major has renewed a complaint that alleges Hill Air Force Base withheld critical information about the destruction of aircraft that were used to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Wes Carter, 68, is a resident of Fort Collins, Colo. and serves with the C-123 Veterans Association — a group that has long advocated for veterans' benefits due to Agent Orange exposure from working on and around C-123 aircraft after the Vietnam War.
C-123s 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, commonly known as Operation Ranch Hand. But the planes were actively used by the Air Force after the war ended.
On Feb. 1, Carter renewed a complaint with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency, based in San Antonio, which was originally filed more than three years ago.
The complaint centers around a 2010 press release that was drafted by Hill’s 75th Air Base Wing, but never distributed. The release provided information about an April 2010 program where the Air Force began recycling 18 Vietnam War-era UC-123K (a variant of the C-123) aircraft that were stored at the service’s Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
Of those 18 aircraft, 13 were confirmed to have sprayed Agent Orange and other defoliants during the Vietnam War. Those aircraft were to be chopped up and shredded, with the subsequent metals and other material then sent on to a smelter for reclamation.
Even though the planes were not destroyed in Utah, Hill was involved in the project’s public affairs campaign and signed off on the program because the base’s 505th Aircraft Sustainment Squadron was responsible for program management support for the UC-123K.
The withheld press release, which has been obtained by the Standard-Examiner, says tests conducted by the Air Force determined the recycling process could be accomplished without harming the environment or the health of the workers involved in the process — something Carter does not dispute.
The retired major’s complaint alleges that the information was suppressed because the Air Force was worried that resulting media coverage of the program could alert Air Force reservists who flew the planes in the 1970s and early ’80s that serious illnesses like cancer, heart disease, acute peripheral neuropathy and ALS could be attributed to their time with the aircraft.
Carter also says that if media ever did catch wind of the project and inquire about it, words like “dioxin,” “contamination,” and “Agent Orange” which were included in previous drafts of the press release, were clipped from the final version and replaced with words less likely to alarm the media and the public.
Carter provided to the Standard-Examiner a document that appears to be a draft of the press release, which confirms those words were taken out of the final draft. That document, along with the final press release and Carter’s official complaints, can be viewed at www.standard.net.
“The final version of the UC-123’s story was approved by the necessary authorities at (Hill’s) 75th Air Base Wing,” Carter’s complaint says. “This was a further element of the effort to minimize public awareness. No lies were told, (but) mistruths were constructed to build a story which really had nothing to do with the real news of the event — dioxin contaminated aircraft.”
According to Carter, his original complaint has remained unresolved.
Carter says the aim of his complaint, its renewal and his decision to alert the media about it, is not to harm the Air Force, but to simply shed light on a matter that is forever a part of his history.
“I’m not here to hurt the Air Force, I’m here to get the truth out,” he said. “The truth might be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t hurt in the long run — it should heal.”
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. That work lasted for 10 years.
During that decade, Carter served as an Air Force medical service officer on UC-123s. In 2011, he was diagnosed with potentially fatal prostate cancer that a VA urological oncologist said could likely be attributed to Agent Orange exposure. Carter says many of his former UC-123 crew members have already died of diseases commonly linked to Agent Orange exposure.
“They wore the uniform,” Carter said. “Someone needs to answer for them.”
The Veterans Administration has long held the position that although Agent Orange could indeed be detected on C-123s years after they were used in Vietnam, scientific studies had shown that the levels of Agent Orange residue left on the planes was unlikely to cause negative health impacts.
But a study released earlier this year, which was commissioned by the VA, runs contrary to the VA’s stance, saying that reservists who worked in the planes after Vietnam could in fact face an increased risk for Agent Orange related diseases.
A January Institute of Medicine report titled “Post-Vietnam Dioxin Exposure in Agent Orange–Contaminated C-123 Aircraft” found “with confidence” that at least some of the estimated 2,100 personnel who served on C-123s were exposed to dangerous levels of dioxin.
“It is plausible that, at least in some cases (which cannot be associated with specific individuals), the reservists’ exposure exceeded health guidelines for workers in enclosed settings,” the report says. “Thus, some reservists quite likely experienced non-trivial increases in their risks of adverse health outcomes.”
The VA paid IOM $500,000 to conduct the study, but has not responded to its findings yet.
“(The) VA appreciates IOM's extensive review,” says a statement on the VA’s public health website. “We have assembled a group of clinical and other subject matter experts to review and respond to the report.”
Carter said the findings of the study, which prompted the renewal of his initial Air Force public affairs complaint, are already having an impact.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald asking him to ensure that veterans who have been denied care for Agent Orange exposure receive timely and proper medical benefits and compensation.
The group said the letter was sent in direct response to the IOM report.
But Carter says he and other service members who served aboard C-123s after Vietnam still deserve some answers regarding the Air Force’s failure to release information on the 2010 incident.
The retired major says detailing the reclamation effort publicly could have helped shed light on the issue of post-Vietnam contact with C-123s and subsequently furthered the cause of providing adequate VA medical benefits to those impacted.
Hill Air Force Base officials say the 2010 effort followed Air Force policy.
"As a matter of standard practice, officials at AMARG do not issue a press release announcement when a particular model or group of aircraft are destroyed and/or recycled,“ says an Air Force statement released to the Standard-Examiner by Hill. ”The destruction of aircraft at AMARG is a routine process, carried out on a regular basis and does not warrant public announcement.“
“If asked, officials routinely acknowledge details of aircraft that have been recycled,” the statement says. “A response to query statement is a typical, often-used method for releasing information to interested parties who formally request information."
But Carter said the history and controversy surrounding the particular aircraft that were recycled in 2010 is an undoubtedly different matter.
“Do they release information on a fire only when the smoke is visible?” Carter said. “This was something the public should have known about.”
Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.