07 February 2016

Just Published - New VA Procedures for Processing C-123 Veterans' Agent Orange Claims

VA has published new guidelines for their internal processing of our C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims. Nothing here affects us much differently than before, but it continues to be important that everyone's claim have C-123 Agent Orange Veteran annotation, rather than let it sit at your local VA office unnecessarily long. St. Paul VA has a special team processing our claims - use them!

from VA Manual 21-1, effective 20 January 2016

Here, from the Code of Federal Regulations 38 C.F.R. §3.307(a)(6)(v) is the VA C-123 regulation that is managed by VAM21-1 (above):
(v) An individual who performed service in the Air Force or Air Force Reserve under circumstances in which the individual concerned regularly and repeatedly operated, maintained, or served onboard C-123 aircraft known to have been used to spray an herbicide agent during the Vietnam era shall be presumed to have been exposed during such service to an herbicide agent. For purposes of this paragraph, “regularly and repeatedly operated, maintained, or served onboard C-123 aircraft” means that the individual was assigned to an Air Force or Air Force Reserve squadron when the squadron was permanently assigned one of the affected aircraft and the individual had an Air Force Specialty Code indicating duties as a flight, ground maintenance, or medical crew member on such aircraft. Such exposure constitutes an injury under 38 U.S.C. 101(24)(B) and (C). If an individual described in this paragraph develops a disease listed in 38 CFR 3.309(e) as specified in paragraph (a)(6)(ii) of this section, it will be presumed that the individual concerned became disabled during that service for purposes of establishing that the individual served in the active military, naval, or air service.

02 February 2016

Boston University Study: Causes of Gulf War Illness Pinpointed (?)

Maybe the examiners performing my Gulf War Registry Exam at Fort Jackson back in '92 weren't too worried about the mysterious "Gulf War Syndrome." They instantly assured me I didn't have it – their appraisal seemed more from a script than an individual examination. This new study by Boston University is summarized by the National Institutes of Health on its MedlinePlus site.

I thought I had GWS. I still do. I had giant cell arteritis, hypertension, peripheral neuropathy, weakness, chronic fatigue, depression, cancers, heart disease, joint pains, skin rashes on my bum and other things I'd never had before.  I became subject to MRSA after major surgeries.

Without explanation, these were all dismissed as totally unassociated with Gulf War Syndrome. Years later, the Palo Alto War Injury and Illness Study Center performed tests on me which confirmed loss of brain white matter, a GWS issue and a very early warning sign of Alzheimer's

This new study suggests that Gulf War Registry exams weren't done with much concern about identifying veterans to qualify for benefits, but rather, to keep them from qualifying.

MONDAY, Feb. 1, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Exposure to pesticides and other toxins appears to be the cause of Gulf War illness in U.S. veterans, a new analysis states.

The Boston University researchers reviewed studies on Gulf War illness, and said their findings "clearly and consistently" show a link between the disorder and exposure to pesticides and taking pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, which were meant to protect troops against the effects of nerve gas.

There's also evidence of a connection between Gulf War illness and exposure to the nerve gas agents sarin and cyclosarin, and to oil well fire emissions, according to the findings published in the January issue of the journal Cortex.

These toxins damaged troops' nervous and immune systems, and reduced the amount of white and gray matter in veterans' brains, said study leader Roberta White in a news release from the university. White is a professor of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health.

The main causes of Gulf War illness are like so-called "friendly fire," said study co-author James Binns. "We did it to ourselves," he said in the news release.

"Pesticides, PB, nerve gas released by destroying Iraqi facilities -- all are cases of friendly fire. That may explain why government and military leaders have been so reluctant to acknowledge what happened," Binns said.

About 700,000 U.S. troops fought in the first Gulf War 25 years ago, and as many as 250,000 veterans of that conflict have Gulf War illness, the researchers said. It is a debilitating disorder that features symptoms such as fatigue, joint and muscle pain, headaches, concentration and memory difficulties, gastrointestinal problems and skin rashes.

For years, Gulf War veterans have claimed that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did not take Gulf War illness seriously. In 2008, a committee created by Congress and directed by the White House released a report that said Gulf War illness is a real disorder that's distinct from stress-related syndromes.

The report from the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses called for research into the causes and treatments of the illness. Binns was chairman of that committee.

Efforts to find effective treatments for Gulf War illness have been unsuccessful, but recent research has started to offer promising leads, the researchers added.

SOURCE: Boston University Medical Center, news release, Jan. 26, 2016

VHA Duplicity: Environmental Hazards Training & Briefing Materials

In 2013 and 2014, Dr. Terry Walters, then Deputy Consultant Post Deployment Public Health (part of VA's Veterans Health Administration) conducted a series of training meetings to address contemporary environmental threats faced by veterans. For the most part, the training was informative and accurate.

But the part dealing with C-123 Agent Orange contamination fell far short of VA's standard for scientific accuracy...so far short it was more deception and policy statement than science. Although VA now provides C-123 veterans with presumptive service connection, this slideshow was VA's last word on the issue and still negatively impacts vets being examined and treated by VA physicians.

VA's policy: prevent C-123 veterans' disability claims. To do so, VHA used Dr. Terry Walters' PowerPoint presentation to train VA staffers and in 2014 modified it for presentation to the Institute of Medicine C-123 committee of the National Academy of Science.

Of the two slides dealing with C-123 issues, eleven specific points were offered.  All but two of these points were policy, not science and were wildly inaccurate –  the first point was somewhat accurate: the statement "a small number of these C-123s" did the spraying was actually 34 aircraft, about 10% of the entire fleet used in Vietnam. The second point was simple and accurate, as indeed the C-123 aircraft return to the US at the end of he Vietnam War.

From that point on, VA policy against C-123 claims overwhelmed any resemblance of fact. These are deceptions, and I use that because the staffers in Post Deployment Health were true experts in this field: these experts knew the facts involved but twisted them for policy fulfillment. As experts who were responsible for our care based on their assessment of the issue, their charts and opinions should have reflected only scientific accuracy. These can't be called simple mistakes – rather, these are twisted details perverted for VHA policy.

Remember that these folks in Post Deployment Health would never accept our flying them aboard a C-123 as poorly done as their science about the C-123! They'd rightfully demand the best the best from us because lives are at stake. Same with us and our C-123 Agent Orange exposure – our lives are at state, but we encounter a VHA that for years was determined to keep us from their hospitals! Also, their policy of preventing our valid claims can't compare to our dedication in getting our mission accomplished.

Let's look at the deceptions...or to be  less critical, misrepresentations. (for clarity I've added numbers as the slides had just bullet points.)

3. Wrong. Veterans cite test results on Patches completed by AF toxicologists in 1979 and 1994 which determined it was "heavily contaminated by dioxin on all test surfaces" and "a danger to public health." The slide mentions "a" wipe sample when, in fact, all wipe samples were positive for the toxin. Veterans also rely on tests completed at Davis-Monthan AFB on 16 of 17 surviving aircraft, all of which were positive for dioxin contamination.

4. Wrong. This is a bland prevarication. True, one test of only four aircraft showed these results, but the slide avoids mention of other numerous tests showing far wider scope of contamination. In fact, the Air Force eventually opted to destroy all remaining  C-123s as toxic waste.

5. Incomplete: Few tests involved air sampling. Those tests which were done were unreliable as the last Vietnam spray missions were done 37 years, but C-123 veterans began flying the planes one year after Vietnam when air samples would have been more accurately assessed the exposure. Further, the last air test were done after the planes had been parked for a quarter century.

6. Wrong: disproved by the 2015 Institute of Medicine C-123 Report

7. Irrelevant: the IOM recognized post-Vietnam veterans have a unique long-term low-dose exposure.

8. Irrelevant: misleading because it is irrelevant, and infers that post-Vietnam veterans were also unaffected; Wrong in that the Institute of Medicine does agree Ranch Hand vets do suffer a wide range of health issues, now recognized by VA as presumptive service issues.

9. Wrong. IOM data and data from the American Cancer Society show significant increases in health problems. In particular, the American Cancer Society and VA published research proving Agent Orange exposure results in twice the rate of highly aggressive prostate cancers.

10. Wrong. The populations cannot be compared, plus Ranch Hand veterans DO have increased health hazards recognized by VA itself. Wrong also in that post-Vietnam C-123 veterans had different exposures than Ranch Hand veterans...six to ten years aboard the toxic aircraft vs. a year or so in-country for Ranch Hand. Further, VA had been informed by the CDC two years before this graph was created that post-Vietnam C-123 veterans have a 200-time greater exposure to dioxin than military limits, and will experience a 182-times greater cancer risk as well. Other agencies confirming veterans' exposures include the National Institutes of Health and National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, as well as the Concerned Scientists and Physicians.

11. Wrong: VA deceives the reader because it published prohibitions against C-123 grants, provided training like this arguing against exposures, refused to accept all other government and scientific input confirming exposures, and never permitted a single claim to be granted. Some very few (less than ten in the five decades involved) were approved in an appeals process.

01 February 2016

VA to Me: "Why Did Your VA Claim File Grow to Twelve Volumes?"

Over the years, VA claims folks have often commented on my own C-file growing and growing, into what I last heard was twelve volumes. Their inference was "why?" 

Reason 1: appeals necessitated by denials and the support documentation for those appeals, over five years of effort that Senator Richard Burr said "shouldn't have taken this long or been this hard."

Reason 2: because I was uncovering the materials necessary to prove our scientific and legal arguments about Agent Orange on the C-123 (our "boots on the airplane" work.) Freedom of Information Act requests, news articles, correspondence, technical and scientific reports, experts' findings and much, much more.

Reason 3: to prove the key point that no amount of proof from whatever source would move C&P to approve a C-123 claim (this is before the Interim Final Rule) because unofficial policies were in play against this group of veterans. Example: Portland VARO wanted to approve my claim in 2012 and cited a "plethora of evidence" but C&P minimized the evidence, dismissing it in their denial advisory opinion as "a few documents."

Strategy: to eventually get to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and not only argue the particular claim should be granted as fact-proven but also prove that VA had systematically abused VCAA*, JSRRC, VAM21-1MR, and always withheld "benefit of the doubt," holding us to an impossibly higher standard of proof to substantiate claims.

Result: it worked by moving to an IOM study. Also worked by showing the growing body of materials from credible sources persuaded legislators that there was a reasonable technical argument in our favor. It also showed that VA had established an improper barrier against granting C-123 claims while wrongly assuring Congress that claims were fairly evaluated – which was not the case. VA responses also showed serious technical errors, such as in the C&P-drafted Secretary Shinseki "C-123 Fact Sheet" sent to answer Senator Burr's letters and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Background: at our first teleconference with VHA/VBA in early 2011, Dr. Walters made the point that no possibility existed for C-123 vets' exposure. She later told the Associated Press she "had to draw the line somewhere." At our first meeting with Tom Murphy in his office, he stated no amount of proof from whatever source would permit C&P to approve a C-123 claim. 

He based that on Dr. Walter's position, and told us the issue was solved with her conclusion. We again asked what proof from CDC, ATSDR or other authorities would bring C&P to reconsider and he answered "nothing. The issue is decided." At about that time, Dr. Walters prohibited C-123 veterans from the Agent Orange Registry exam**, even though a Secretarial policy was in place that any veteran could seek the exam.

This was while Secretary Shinseki and others were insisting VA had no regulation against C-123 grants (although it was frequently stated as such on denials) and evaluated claims on a "case-by-case basis" even though 100% of the claims were denied except a handful through BVA and two DROs.

We had to argue two separate issues: the fact of contamination on the aircraft, and the fact of potential exposure. VA denied both. Eventually VA also threw up the veteran status challenge...that proved to be a barrier resolved only through the Interim Final Rule.

VA insisted there was no C-123 herbicide contamination because had that been conceded, VA was bound by three separate Federal Register assurances that any veteran with exposure outside Vietnam would still be treated with the same presumptive service connection. Thus, in VA-speak, no contamination meant no presumptive service connection.

VA abused this point yet further by insisting that even if there was contamination, there could have been no exposure. Toxicologically, that is impossible. Exposure to a toxin occurs via inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact. We sought expert opinions on exposure from Dr Linda Birnbaum, Director, NIH National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and others which directly challenged VA

To further VA's struggle against conceding exposure, VA redefined exposure. Using the 2012 Society of Toxicology annual conference, VHA Post Deployment Health presented a poster which included Dr. Iron's line (as though it was scientific fact) "exposure = contamination field + bioavailability.Dr. Walters then used that redefinition to insist that because in later years C-123 veterans years later could prove bioavailability to her satisfaction, no exposure occurred and therefore, no presumptive service connection and no consideration for direct proof either. 

Other scientists took umbrage at VHA's Post Deployment Health redefinition of exposure, and as a result I was sponsored by the Director, NIESH in challenging VA at the 2014 Society of Toxicology conference. I presented an argument against the redefinition as well as VA ethics.

VHA redefining such a fundamental scientific term for use only by VHA and VBA for C-123 herbicide claims (and not elsewhere in VA) got quite a bit of notice elsewhere and moved more scientists and agencies to help us. It also helped that all of VA uses Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary for official terminology, and VBA's unique redefinition contrasted with Dorland's.

* (note: as regards VCAA, none of the government documents addressing C-123 Agent Orange exposure has ever been provided other veterans by VA, despite requirements that all available government materials be made available.)

**On May 13, 2013, Dr. Walters kindly clarified her change in her email to me, although Post Deployment Health hasn't yet spelled out on the VA page for some reason:
"Other potential Agent Orange exposures:
Veterans who may have been exposed to herbicides during a military operation or as a result of testing, transporting, or spraying herbicides for military purposes. Learn about herbicide tests and storage outside Vietnam. Agent Orange or Dioxin dried on surfaces does not present a significant threat to human health. Veterans are eligible if they were in the presence of liquid Agent Orange such as when Agent Orange was sprayed, tested or transported."

31 January 2016

According to the VA glossary of terms, the terms "Environmental Contaminants" and "Gulf War Illness" are one and the same!

(Thanks for pointing this out, John. Remember, everyone, that VHA Post Deployment Health is the group which redefined "exposure" to prevent exposure claims!

– John Olin, 30 January 2016 

"Environmental Contaminants / Gulf War Illness": 
Gulf War Veterans were exposed to a wide variety of environmental hazards and potential harmful substances during their service in Southwest Asia. These include depleted uranium, pesticides, the anti-nerve gas pill pyridostigmine bromide, infectious diseases, chemical and biological warfare agents, and vaccinations (including anthrax and botulinum toxoid), and oil well free smoke and petroleum products. 

VA recognizes that there are other health risk factors encountered by Gulf War Veterans. Veterans with service during the Gulf War are eligible to receive treatment for conditions related to this service. 

If the treatment provided is for an illness or symptom that may possibly be associated with environmental contamination, copay for medical care and medication copay will not be charged. 

Conditions Associated with Environmental Contaminants: 
Persistent fatigue 
Skin rash 
Sleep disturbance 
Joint pain 
Shortness of breath/chest pain 
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis 

However, the above language was quietly removed by the VA very recently.  
It now reads: 
Environmental Contaminants: Environment hazards and potential harmful substances such as pesticides and chemical and biological warfare agents. It is very important to note that the language recently removed from the glossary of terms by VA had a huge implication on claimants co-pays. "If the treatment provided is for an illness or symptom that may possibly be associated with environmental contamination, copay for medical care and medication copay will not be charged." 

30 January 2016

"An unfortunate choice of words" – how VA denied Agent Orange claim by insisting Agent Orange is harmless

Just received from the Department of Justice: DOJ has summarized VA's response to our inquiry regarding the famous statement used by VBA Compensation and Pension to deny a C-123 veteran's claim. VA actually ordered the claim denied by insisting there is no evidence of Agent Orange and its toxic component TCDD causing human health injuries.

Now, DOJ says that was "an unfortunate choice of words." Unfortunate but still adequate, however, for VA to have denied the claim for five years!

One of the first C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims faced the determined opposition of VBA's Compensation and Pension Service, a determined opposition which continues even years later, despite all scientific evidence.

Opposition which has included even denying Agent Orange claims by insisting that Agent Orange is somehow harmless and that Agent Orange benefits specified by Congress in the 1991 Agent Orange Law for Agent Orange exposure with resulting Agent Orange illnesses...claims which are to be denied on the personal whim of VA staffers annoyed at veterans seeking care. (sorry for the run-on sentence.)

C&P's view was that C-123 veterans' Agent Orange exposures are to be blocked, despite meeting the requirements of the 1991 Agent Orange Act, and VA's own regulation VAM-21-1MR.

Portland's VA Regional Office forwarded a C-123 vet's claim to VBA's Agent Orange desk as required, with the field's recommendation for approval given the vast amount of supporting evidence and compliance with the law. Compensation and Pension responded with what has continued to be their blanket denial of all such claims. Here is what was just an early example of their extra-legal injection of personal attitudes into claim denials:

29 January 2016

BVA Cites VA Consultant's Flawed Reports to Deny Veteran's Disability Claim

The Board of Veterans Appeals instructed the RO to refer the case to the JSRRC to corroborate the Veteran's claimed exposure. The list of DOD Agent Orange storage, transport and testing sites was compiled in 2006 by a consultant who disagrees with the harmful effects of Agent Orange exposure. The list is considered a DOD list because it is controlled by the Armed Forces Pest Management Board but mostly used by VA to confirm or deny veterans' claims for duty in such areas.

Problem: The list hasn't been updated in nine years and even the consultant in 2012 agreed it was obsolete and required extensive updating. VA is wrong to deny claims citing such an obsolete and unreliable document. VA must have agreed because in 2012 (a year BEFORE the claim below was denied) it provided a no-bid sole source $600,000 contract to the consultant for review of all such material.

"In March 2013, the RO also contacted the U.S. Army Garrison/Armed Forces Pest Management Board and requested that they verify the use of herbicides on or around bases in Okinawa, Japan, from February 1974 to May 1976 an April 2013 Memorandum, the Armed Forces Pest Management Board (U.S. Army Garrison Forest Glen) responded that a recently published report by Dr. Alvin Young titled "Investigations into Allegations of Herbicide Orange on Okinawa, Japan" provides the most complete data available on this subject. 
Dr. Young's findings were that there were no documents or records to validate that Herbicide Orange was shipped to or through, unloaded, used or buried on Okinawa. The internet link to the full report was provided. 
VA Compensation and Pension Service has reviewed a listing of herbicide use and test sites outside Vietnam provided to VA by the Department of Defense (DoD). This list contains 71 sites within the U.S. and in foreign countries where tactical herbicides, such as Agent Orange, were used, tested, or stored. Testing and evaluations of these tactical herbicides were conducted by or under the direction of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, Fort Detrick, Maryland."

28 January 2016

Air Force Dumps C-123 Veterans in VA's Lap – Refuses ALL Assistance. Says We're VA's Problem Now.

C-123 Agent Orange – the new Catch 22.

 We asked the Air Force to consider conducting line of duty determinations to establish our exposure injuries back in the timeframe when we were flying the toxic former Agent Orange spray C-123s.

Throught Senator Burr's office, the Air Force has refused, telling us to turn to the VA for any help. The VA has already said without an Air Force line of duty determination, it will not provide us full compensation for our exposure injuries.

Catch 22: You can't fly combat because you're so scared you're
crazy, that means you're sane and so you have to fly combat 
because you're not crazy because you are crazy. 
But if you were crazy, you wouldn't have to fly combat.
Did these two organizations get together to work out this clever anti-veteran game plan ahead of time? Each points to the other, and each already knows the other will refuse us further help.

Okay, we get the idea. We're dumped.

Lesson learned?
1. Respectfully, you cannot fully accept what general officers tell you about your safety. If they are wrong and later proven incorrect, it will be the airmen abandoned and not the Air Force offering any help.
2. Do not accept what Air Force scientific organizations such as the Armstrong Labs or the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine tell you about your safety. If they're wrong and later proven incorrect, it will be the airman abandoned and not the Air Force offering any help.
3. If the authorities are wrong, it will be the airmen left to pay the price in physical suffering and financial loss, not the military.
4. Even if they put their mistaken assurances of safety in print, it means nothing in the final analysis. The Air Force will tell the airmen to get help from the VA, and the VA will say they can do nothing without an Air Force line of duty determination. Nobody does nothing. For us, it is Catch 22. A great movie but not the right way to care for real-world military aircrews.

Believe me, this has all been thought out by the VA and AF. We did our duty. We trusted our leaders. They're now proved wrong but we're left swinging in the wind.

For some leaders, "no" is just easier to say than doing what's right.

27 January 2016

VA Secretary Proposes Overhaul of Claims Appeals Process for Senate Consideration. "Fails Veterans," He Insists.

(note: my own claim submitted in 2011, denied in 2012, appealed immediately, is coming up on its third year waiting for the VA regional office to forward it for appeals, after which the Board of Veterans Appeals takes about another six months to process. If successful(?) in my appeal, the claim is returned to the regional office to begin the process all over again in hopes for a more positive outcome. The process described by Secretary McDonald is truly designed to wait out veterans remaining days..."delay, deny until they die" is how the Vietnam Veterans of America describe it.

It might not be clear to non-veterans that all the while a claim sits awaiting an initial decision and then the appeal, VA refuses all medical care and other benefits. In my case, these last five years with cancer, heart disease and other problems would have had me dead and off the VA's queue by now if I'd not had other medical care available. The longer VA delays a decision, the more money it saves.)

“Decades worth of law and policy layered upon each other have become cumbersome and clunky,” McDonald said in a statement to House lawmakers and the press. “Most importantly, it is now so antiquated that it no longer serves veterans well as many find it confusing and are frustrated by the endless process and the associated length of time it can take to get an answer.”
The Cabinet secretary he needs both legislation and resourcing to “put in place a simplified appeals process” to handle the cases in a matter of months, instead of years.
McDonald’s call echoed comments he made to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Jan. 21 during a hearing on department reforms. He said that with lawmakers’ help, officials could reduce the processing time for appeals cases to less than a year by 2020, much quicker than the current three-year average wait for decisions.
VA officials have worked in recent years to clear the backlog of first-time benefits applications after intense public criticism about the waits facing veterans seeking disability payouts.IOver the last three years, the number of cases pending for four months or more has dropped from more than 612,000 to fewer than 80,000 this week. But officials missed their publicly stated goal of reaching zero by the end of 2015.
At the same time, the number of appeals — cases where veterans believe claims processors have misunderstood the severity of their injuries and shortchanged their benefits payouts — has risen by more than one-third, to 440,000 cases.
VA officials have blamed the rise on the growing number of veterans filing benefits claims, noting the percent of cases heading to appeals has held steady at around 12 percent in recent years.
They also note that administrative moves alone to certify and transfer appeals usually take more than two years.
Veterans also have the option of adding new illnesses and disabilities as the appeals process drags on, giving them the opportunity to receive larger payouts but also lengthening the wait on decisions.
McDonald called the current wait times for veterans in the process “unacceptable.”
The VA secretary says he wants a new appeals process “with the timely and fair appeals decisions veterans deserve, and adequate resourcing.”
House lawmakers have begun work on legislation to reform the appeals process. A bill sponsored by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, would create a “fully developed appeals” process, limiting introduction of new evidence and arguments but guaranteeing quicker processing time and decisions.
Mirror legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate in coming days. The proposal could become the basis of the type of reform McDonald wants, and has support from key lawmakers from both political parties.
But Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., last week warned that getting an overhaul plan through Congress in an election year  “will take significant legislative willpower, but it's not impossible.”
McDonald said plans are underway to move on upgraded mail systems and digitized records that will speed the process some. Staff is undergoing retraining to better handle those cases.
“But (those steps) will not be enough,” he said. “We must also look critically at the many steps in the current complex appeals process used by VA and by veterans and their advocates to design a process that better serves veterans.”

26 January 2016

Institute of Medicine Dismisses Claims of Project SHAD Medical Injuries

In the January 8 2016 release of its second review of the Navy's Project SHAD, the Institute of Medicine has not identified any health risks associated with the tests conducted on vessels between 1962-1973. The Navy sprayed a variety of agents on its ships to assess their ability to withstand chemical, nuclear and biological threats.

24 January 2016

Did USAF Decide to Save Money But Sacrifice Aircrews? Seems like it!

When C-23K Tail #362 ("Patches") was decontaminated at the USAF Museum, the cost for the commercial HAZMAT contractor was $60,000. A substantial sum!

Air Force paid that $60,000 because of everyone's overwhelming desire to keep the historical Patches in the Museum. The Air Force did not decontaminate any other C-123s. Faced with a potential $3.4 billion EPA illegal HAZMAT storage fine, in 2009 the Air Force opted to decontaminate by shredding and smelting all remaining aircraft at Davis-Monthan's Boneyard, turning them into aluminum blocks for the auto industry.

• Question
Since the Air Force knew the Agent Orange spray history of the ten or twelve former UC-123K spray birds as well as the results of the Conway report in 1979 (same year the Air Force Health Study began on Operation Ranch Hand veterans) why weren't all the airplanes properly decontaminated to protect aircrews and maintainers?

• Answers: 
1. Innocence and ignorance: In the '70s, there was growing concern about Agent Orange but little solid knowledge available to decision makers. Tests for deadly TCDD weren't even available in 1979 for the Conway report. Net result of the '79 test: (1) aircrew safety was assured (wrongly) and (2) aircrews were actually told the Air Force Material Command to continue scraping residue from nooks and crannies in the airplane, and to use air freshener to mask the nauseating stench, and scrub the C-123s with Dawn detergent. These steps all proved completely useless, as proven by the 1994 toxicological inspection of Patches that found it still "heavily contaminated with dioxin on all test surfaces" and "a danger to public health."
2. The end-of-life for the C-123 fleet was fast coming, and the Air Force was extremely hesitant to invest $60,000 for the couple years of remaining use of the transports.
3. Records vaguely suggest 24 UC-123K former Agent Orange spray birds were still in use by three squadrons. At $60,000 each, decontamination would cost the Air Force $1,400,000, plus it would take the airplanes out of service for an uncertain time.
4. The Big Reason*: if the Air Force moved to decontaminate the C-123s, it would be an announcement to the aircrews and maintainers that they'd already been exposed to deadly dioxin for several years. The illnesses and deaths of veterans between 1972 and whatever date a decontamination might occur would instantly have an association with Agent Orange exposure and veterans would apply to VA for disability benefits.

• Pound Wise-Penny Foolish!

Initially, the Air Force "saved" $1,400,000 by skipping the necessary decontamination of its C-123s. However, the June 2015 Interim Final Rule for C-123 veterans is estimated by the White House Office of Manpower and Budget to cost over $47,000,000 plus medical care. So the decision was a big money loser.

Worse, many of the two thousand men and women who volunteered to fly these aircraft now suffer the illnesses associated with long-term Agent Orange exposure. Although VA now might provide medical care and compensation, that is not worth cancers, heart disease, ALS, diabetes, soft tissue sarcoma and the other recognized Agent Orange illnesses.

* The Big Reason: a little background to prove the point:

In 2009 the Air Force was in turmoil about what to do with the toxic C-123s, known throughout the service as "the Agent Orange airplanes." The DOD consultant emphasized the potential for exposed veterans learning about their exposures and turning to the VA for earned benefits. Apparently this was something the Air Force felt best avoided, principally by destroying the surplus C-123s with as little visibility as possible.

Seeking Air Staff approval for the destruction, Air Force officials repeated the consultant's cautions, and as a result veterans did not learn for several years about the exposures they experienced in the 1972-1986 timeframe:
(from 505ACSS Position Paper, Mr. Buddy Boor, 5 Aug 2009)
The consultant is the same person named by Newsday (May 1 1985) who recommended all further testing on Agent Orange be discontinued:

 "White House scientist Alvin L. Young, a toxicologist, recommends that no further research on dioxin should be funded, "because research has failed to show it causes cancer or birth defects in humans."
Thankfully, his attempt to stop research on Agent Orange and its toxic component dioxin was not accepted, and over time a much fuller appreciation of the harm caused by Agent Orange developed.

22 January 2016

Aircrews abandoned, "hung out to dry" for decades of USAF mistakes & deceptions

A couple days ago I blogged about General Haugen's statement that C-123s are "as safe as humanly possible."

Events proved that the airplanes certainly weren't safe. A month before General Haugen's words, the USAF Armstrong Labs had identified military herbicide residue on Patches. Crews had complained about the stench being a safety concern, making crew and passengers alike nauseated.

C-123 Vets
Thus far, the Air Force has taken no steps to protect the veterans who flew the C-123s and were exposed to harmful amounts of Agent Orange. Even when asked to generate Line of Duty determinations for sick veterans, AF refused. C-123 veterans have been "hung out to dry" by AF leaders refusing to make right its decades of errors.

Key points: 
• Veterans followed chain of command, reported issues, obeyed orders, volunteered to fly and maintain the former Agent Orange spray planes
• Air Force generals, scientists and other leadership denied contamination, denied exposures, suppressed information, destroyed airplanes with a concern to prevent veterans' claims, abused FOIA requests, produced flawed C-123 reports cited by VA to block veterans' claims

The Air Force failed to protect its airmen while we were flying the C-123 (1972-1986.) Today, even with VA, CDC and Institute of Medicine confirmation of our exposure injuries, USAF does nothing to protect us or make right its decades of errors.

All the mistakes and deceptions with C-123 contamination were by the Air Force, not the aircrews. We were officially assured our airplanes were safe but they were toxic. USAF indifference has left us to shoulder the burden of USAF mistakes and deceptions. They even refuse Line of Duty determinations covering our exposures.

A. Lets look at what the veterans did:
1. reported a safety concern resulting in the 1979 Conway Report on Patches; the report identified toxins but dismissed exposure concerns
2. worked for years trying to clean residue from the former UC-123K birds
3. accepted the General's assurances, continued to volunteer to continue flying Patches and the others
4. over the years, developed Agent Orange illnesses
5. filed a USAF IG complaint when inquiries were unsuccessful; when the IG complaint was denied filed a similar DOD IG complaint which was ignored
6. gathered scientific information, presented to scientists at USAF School of Aerospace Medicine
7. gathered scientific information from CDC, NIH, US Public Health Service, universities
8. presented veterans' perspective and C-123 knowledge at Institute of Medicine hearings
9. granted VA service connection for Agent Orange illnesses but denied retroactive compensation
10. EVERY assertion by the C-123 veterans has been backed by solid evidence

B. Lets look at what the AF did:
USAF C-123 Policy

1. arranged 1979 Conway Report, opted not to decontaminate AFRES former UC-123K spray aircraft
2. in 1979 continued assuring aircrews and maintenance workers the airplanes were safe
3. completed 1994 USAF Armstrong Labs inspection on Patches, reported it "heavily contaminated with dioxin on all test surfaces" and "a danger to public health"
4. Concerned with foreign sales of contaminated C-123s, USAF Office of Environmental Law directed "all information be kept in official channels only"
5. in 1996 decontaminated Patches at $60,000 cost
6. in 2000, concerned with toxin liability, ordered all C-123 sales halted
7. in 2000, reacting to Davis-Monthan AFB worker complaints, ordered all surplus C-123s sealed, quarantined in special HAZMAT storage area; ordered workers to wear full HAZMAT protection
8. in 2009-2010, destroyed all C-123s as toxic waste; special measures to keep process "under the radar" and of low public interest specifically because consultants and staff noted if Reservists learned of exposures they might file VA claims
9. USAF School of Aerospace Medicine began study of C-123 Agent Orange issue after veterans complained through Senate and newspapers; 2012 report dismissed aircraft contamination and veterans' exposures
10. USAF Surgeon General declined notifying C-123 veterans of potential exposures, stating it would "cause undue distress"
11. USAF declined adding UC-123s to VA or DOD lists of Agent Orange testing, storage, transport sites
12. USAF declined FOIA requests, forcing veterans' lawsuit in US District Court Washington DC in which AF was ordered to comply and pay veterans' legal fees
13.USAF did not respond or comment when Institute of Medicine faulted the 2012 report as scientifically and mathematically in error
14. When Congressional leaders requested USAF Line of Duty determinations for aircrews' exposures, only response from the USAF Congressional Liaison Office was to find loopholes in AFI 36-2910 to block the requested protection. AF pointed to the 180-day limit on Reserve Component complaints of injury, insisting LODs couldn't be done after that. AF failed to note that aircrews did indeed officially complain of the toxins in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979, but the AF had dismissed the complaints even though scientists identified military herbicide residue (Conway, 1979.)

USAF actions against C-123 Vets
P.S.: Air Force, you can't have it both ways. The Air Force cannot waste these last several decades
fighting us, insisting to us and to the VA that we were never exposed and our airplanes never contaminated, only now that the facts are set straight to insist it must stand silent on the issue of veterans' benefits and can do nothing to set right the situation.

Air Force took on itself an active mission of arguing against C-123 veterans' on our exposure assertions. Now that the CDC and the Institute of Medicine have set straight the scientific and medical facts, it is anti-veteran and disingenuous for the AF to state that only VA can deal with the veterans.
 There are many steps the Air Force can take to help its veteran airmen:
1. Acknowledge that the USAFSAM C-123 report has been challenged by the CDC and IOM. We don't expect AF to disown their report but it cannot be left to stand as the Air Force's last word on C-123 contamination.
2. Publish something like VA's C-123 Fact Sheet, addressing contamination and aircrew exposures. AF history must have some documentation on this controversy.
3. Include the recent events in the USAF Museum C-123 display
4. Recommend that the Armed Forces Pest Management Branch include former Operation Ranch Hand UC-123K tail numbers in the DOD list of Agent Orange testing, storage and preparation sites.
5. Use Afterburner to inform C-123 veterans of the VA Agent Orange benefits
6. On request from affected veterans, conduct Line of Duty determinations to consider whether or not C-123 veterans were exposed. An LOD helps reinforce a veteran's claim when processed by the VA because the VA must concede military documentation as decisive.

VA has insisted the C-123 crews were not qualified per statute as "veterans" during our C-123 exposures and uses their Interim Final Rule to provide that veteran status. Actually, such exposure constitutes an injury under 38 U.S.C. 101(24)(B) and (C).  If an individual develops a disease listed in 38 CFR 3.309(e) as specified in paragraph (a)(6)(ii) it will be presumed that the individual concerned became disabled during that service for purposes of establishing that the individual served in the active military, naval, or air service.

This Weekend's Powerful East Coast Storm

20 January 2016

Wing Commander Assured Aircrews Patches Was Safe (1979)

Statement of Brigadier General Don Haugen, Commander, 439th Airlift Wing:
"As far as aircraft safety is concerned, although there is never a warranty, the C-123 is as safe as humanly possible."(BG Don Haugen, October 1979)
     General Haugen's reassurance came in 1979 one month after inspectors from Air Force Armstrong Labs reported residue on C-123K # 362 (Patches) of military herbicides, including Agent Orange and Agent Blue, left from their Vietnam War spray operations. 

     The general was told the airplanes were safe. The general told us the airplanes were safe. But the airplanes were not safe, and now the aircrews are blocked from exposure benefits we'd have received if USAF mistakes had been uncovered earlier. When the 1979 tests were done, no science existed to detect the deadly TCDD contaminant which was the real problem.
     The 1979 test was ordered when aircrews and maintenance staff submitted safety complaints addressing Patch's stench. The scientists concluded that Patches should be scrubbed out with Dawn detergent and air fresheners used to mask the stench. Of course, Dawn detergent did nothing to help and neither did the many years crews spent trying to scrape out the residue.
     Fifteen years later, USAF Armstrong Labs again inspected Patches, determining her to be "heavily contaminated with dioxin on all test surfaces, and "a danger to public health." Patches received a $60,000 HAZMAT decontamination and its toxicity was reduced to about 10% of the original contamination, judged safe for "occasional entry."
     Conclusion: without the decontamination, Patches certainly wasn't "as safe as humanly possible" but instead remained a source of our Agent Orange exposures. The 1994 $60,000 decontamination should have been done BEFORE we started flying Patches, not fifteen years AFTER she was retired. (In 2012-2014 the VA spent $600,000 for its consultant to oppose C-123 claims at the IOM, more than enough to have decontaminated each of the aircraft at the very first!)     
     It wasn't until January 2015 that the Institute of Medicine determined that C-123 veterans had been exposed to harmful amounts of Agent Orange while flying Patches, and that veterans' benefits were appropriate. IOM concluded that the 2012 Air Force study of C-123 Agent Orange exposure were scientifically and mathematically flawed: the Air Force (incorrectly) reported the C-123s weren't hazardous and that veterans benefits would be inappropriate.
     General Haugen was a wonderful man. I had the privilege of working for him for years, but even this general officer was misled by faulty science and an institution dedicated to denial of such problems.

19 January 2016

16 January 2016

VA Secretary McDonald "Indifferent?" NO! He is passionate about serving veterans.

I CANNOT agree with WSJ's January 13 report on VA "indifference." My experience since 1992 has been quite the opposite, other than a few instances where staffers were in an inappropriate position of authority. Instead VA has been amazingly attentive to my concerns, and concerns of the veterans of our C-123 Veterans Association.

For instance, this MLK holiday weekend a dedicated claims worker in the VA St Paul Regional Office has been reviewing veterans' claims and resolving many which have taken too long.

That worker has been available for detailed inquiries, and has resolved claims in as little as 16 days for a terminal veteran.

Mr. McDonald's leadership cannot inspire everyone at VA nor can he do the work of all 300,000 employees. His leadership, however, is as telling as it can be. I cannot imagine any cabinet officer working as hard at such a thankless job.

As for medical care, I've had some disappointments but in the decades since my injury, probably fewer complaints with VA than I'd have had with my civilian practitioners, and certainly a more comprehensive package of care offered me...dental, prosthetics, rehab, pharmacy, ophthalmology, general medicine and other benefits essential to a disabled veteran.

Veterans are lucky to be able to say to Secretary McDonald, "Thank you for YOUR service!"