The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it will make an announcement next week about treatment for Air Force reservists who may have been exposed to Agent Orange after Vietnam. Ohio U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown has joined the chorus of voices asking for a policy change.
As many as 2,100 people who worked on C-123 cargo planes in the Air Force reserves could have been exposed to Agent Orange residues in the 1970s, after those planes had been used in Vietnam to spray the toxic defoliant. The planes weren’t thoroughly cleaned before being reused in the reserves in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. One C-123 that was finally retired to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force was decontaminated by contractors in the 1990s before going on display inside a hangar.
Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus was one of the sites that flew C-123s for medical and other missions, and a growing group of former reservists has been asking the VA for recognition for health conditions that could be related to dioxin, the toxin in Agent Orange. Currently, anyone who was on the ground in Vietnam and has any of a list of diseases associated with dioxin is eligible for what are called presumptive benefits, including disability benefits and money for survivors. But many of the C-123 reservists never went to Vietnam, and almost all have had their claims related to Agent Orange denied by the VA.
Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown says he talked to VA Secretary McDonald about the issue personally.
“How do we make this up to them in the quickest, best possible way?” he said in an interview with WYSO.
In a Veterans Affairs committee meeting Thursday morning, McDonald for the first time publicly promised answers following a question from Senator Brown that referenced WYSO’s national reporting on the issue. The statement came after years of pressure from reservists, who say the VA had the information it needed years ago to reassess the status of C-123 vets.
After a recent report by the Institute of Medicine confirmed the possibility that C-123 reservists were exposed to Agent Orange in hazardous amounts, the VA updated its website encouraging vets to file claims. Still, veterans involved in advocacy have been pushing for the VA and the Air Force to be proactive about finding the people who could be affected, and offering them the same presumptive benefits given to those who were in Vietnam.
McDonald said the VA is working to identify the people who could have been exposed, and Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey will make an announcement on the issue next week.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.