With all the bad news relating to the Veteran’s Administration these days, finally, there is some good news. The organization, reversing a long-held position of denying benefits to reservists, is now saying that Air Force reservists who became ill after being exposed to Agent Orange residue while working on C-123 planes after the Vietnam War should be eligible for disability benefits. Locating all of these reservists has been a problem because C-123 veterans are scattered across the country. The VA is working to locate them all, and they have recently updated its website to encourage reservists to sign up for an exam to see if they qualify.
Many of these reservists participated in Operation Ranch Hand, a program in which the U.S. military sprayed 18 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam meant to deprive the Viet Cong of manioc and rice crops, as well as to destroy the jungle they used as cover. Between April 1969 and February 1972, some 30 to 40 C-123 aircraft used in Operation Ranch Hand returned to the U.S., approximately 24 of which were distributed among Air Force reserve units. After their return to the U.S., these aircraft were reconditioned and returned to service, a process that took six to 12 months. Members of the C-123 Veterans Association have testified that Air Force reserve crews had to remove residue from the aircraft interior and wash the exterior as part of this servicing. Typically, a reservist might spend anywhere from 4.5 to 12 hours per shift on board a C-123. One of the most famous C-123s was “Patches”. Patches was hit more than 500 times by enemy fire while flying defoliation missions. After it’s service, it was transferred to the National Museum of the USAF in 1980. Before undergoing restoration in 1994, it was tested for Agent Orange and determined to be highly contaminated.
In 2014, the VA asked the Institute of Medicine to evaluate the reservists’ exposure to Agent Orange after many of these reservists had applied to the VA for coverage under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, but were denied as ineligible since they were not Vietnam-era veterans and/or hadn’t serviced in Vietnam. According to their January 2015 report, it was concluded that many C-123 reservists had been exposed to chemical residuals on the interior surfaces of the aircrafts and suffered higher risks of health problems as a result. Also, the VA is expected to determine that more reservists will be eligible for VA medical care and disability payments if they have one of the 14 diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange. Those include prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Hodgkins’ disease and lung cancer.
For more than 2,000 service personnel who flew or worked on C-123 aircraft in the U.S. from 1972 to 1982, this certainly increases their chances of obtaining service connected benefits from the VA they were previously denied. If the White House Office of Management and budget finalize the rule, it would be the first time the VA had established a special category of Agent Orange Exposure for military personnel without “boots on the ground” or inland waterways service in Vietnam. It would also expand coverage under the Agent Orange Act of 1991 to reservists stationed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh National Guard Base.
Not everyone who served on C-123’s will be eligible to apply for benefits or are unlikely to qualify, though. Veterans being treated for such things as brain tumors, kidney masses, or restless leg syndrome will be unlikely to qualify because none of these conditions are on the presumptive list. The VA has recognized that certain diseases can be related to a veteran’s, and now reservist’s, qualifying military service, called “presumptive diseases”, and are associated with exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides during military service.
Many veterans are cheering this new decision that will open the door for many more deserving veterans to receive disability benefits, but it is also bittersweet. Many of these reservists have died, thus their dependents will never be able to collect benefits on behalf of their loved ones who served valiantly and ultimately sacrificed their life.