In a complaint to the Air Force inspector general, a retired officer alleges health officials have known since at least 1994 of Agent Orange contamination aboard C-123 aircraft flown by reserve squadrons for a decade after the Vietnam War, and failed to warn personnel of the health risks.
After the Air Force stopped using UC-123K Provider aircraft to spray herbicide on the jungles of Vietnam, some of those aircraft, their spray tanks removed, were reassigned in 1972 to new missions at three stateside bases.
For the next decade Air Force reservists flew and maintained them. Last month one of the post-war crewmen, disabled retiree Maj. Wesley Carter, 64, of McMinnville, Ore., had a heart attack requiring surgery, and also learned that he has prostate cancer.
A medical service officer, Carter said he thought about the many hours he had served aboard foul-smelling C-123 "spray birds" after the war, flying out of Westover Air Force Base, Mass. So in recent weeks he conducted online searches, looking for any report of lingering Agent Orange contamination on these planes assigned Reserve missions until 1982.
What Carter found alarmed him enough, he said, that he began to contact crewmen from his squadron. The first five he reached had prostate cancer, Carter said. He heard of others who had died, most of them from more diseases that Department of Veterans Affairs presumes, at least for veterans of Vietnam, were caused by Agent Orange exposure.
Carter started a blog, www.c123kcancer.blogspot.com, with links to reports and memos referencing dioxin contamination aboard C-123s flown by reservists after the war from Westover, Pittsburgh Air Reserve Base and Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio.
One of the first disturbing documents found, Carter said, deals with a famous C-123, nicknamed "Patches" during the war because it was hit so often by enemy fire during spraying runs. Patches was one of three C-123s, among 16 aircraft of the 731st Tactical Airlift Squadron, known to crewmen as having sprayed herbicide during the war.
Carter found a report from 1994 showing that before Patches was put on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, an analysis for toxins found that it was "heavily contaminated with PCDD," or polychlorinated dibenzodioxin, a human carcinogen.
So work crews that prepared Patches for display had to wear hazardous material suits and respirators, and the public would not be allowed to touch it. Yet Carter and crewmates had flown it often. He remembered its strong smell, like the inside of one Halloween mask he had worn as a kid.
By filing an inspector general complaint, Carter wants the Air Force to explain why, after learning C-123s flown by reservists were toxic, the service did not warn former crewmen of their exposure and possible health risks.
Retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. John Harris of Mashpee, Mass., flew 2,700 hours as a C-123 command pilot for the 731st, from 1973 to 1981. Almost 400 of those hours were in Patches or in one of the other squadron aircraft that had sprayed in Vietnam. Harris, 67, has diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, both conditions on VA's list of 14 Agent Orange presumptive diseases.
"We knew it was there," Harris said of residual herbicide on some C-123 aircraft. "You could smell it on a hot day, or a cold day when the heaters were running. You could smell it so bad you couldn't stand it."
Harris said he often flew with cockpit windows open. He compares the smell to wasp or roach spray. Vietnam vets in the squadron identified it as Agent Orange, Harris said. But no one back then understood the dangers of compounds used in the war to defoliate jungles and kill crops.
Neither Harris nor Carter served on the ground in Vietnam. Both men now believe reservists who flew or maintained these aircraft should be treated like Vietnam veterans with regard to Agent Orange-related presumptive diseases when filing VA compensation claims or seeking survivor benefits.