C-123 Veterans

C-123 veterans and other airmen veterans claiming exposure to herbicides during aviation service in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), evidence — in the form of documentation showing dates and locations of service — must be provided to support in-country duty or visitation. Presumptive exposure to herbicides can be given if the veteran’s unit history shows in-country service in the RVN, the veteran was assigned to the unit during that same time period.

On Thursday, June 18, 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to extend benefits to Air Force reservists who flew C-123 aircraft contaminated with Agent Orange residue in the years following the Vietnam War. These C-123 Agent Orange benefits will extend to nearly 2,100 personnel.

What happened to these aircraft? Click here to learn more

The new federal rule took effect on Friday, June 19, 2015. In addition to the C-123 reservists, the VA says it has expanded the rule to include others who may have been exposed — pilots, mechanics and medical personnel — who served at seven other locations: Florida, Virginia, and Arizona, as well as Taiwan, Panama, South Korea and the Philippines.

Are you eligible? Here’s the list of reserve units, U.S. and overseas active duty units, and Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs) eligible for benefits.

“Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do,” VA Secretary Bob McDonald said in a statement, according to The Associated Press.

Fairchild C-123 Provider aircraft were returned stateside after their use during the Vietnam War, and flew over a period of 10 years out of installations such as Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts and Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio by the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard.

The Air Force used 34 C-123 and C-123K aircraft during Operation Ranch Hand for spraying of herbicides, most notably Agent Orange (AO), and some used until 1971 for spraying insect control. These aircraft could carry 1,000 gallons of herbicide and spray three gallons per acre over an area 240 feet wide. The concentrations were 20 to 55 times normal agricultural use for killing plants.

On January 9, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies released a report stating the airmen were exposed to toxic herbicide residue in the C-123s, including Agent Orange.

The report titled “Post-Vietnam Dioxin Exposure In Agent Orange-Contaminated Aircraft”, released Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, found that these Air Force Reserve members may be at risk for developing diseases and conditions related to Agent Orange.

It is the first time the VA has established a special category of Agent Orange exposure for troops who weren’t on the ground or didn’t serve on inland waterways in Vietnam, according to The Associated Press.

What’s next?

If you belief you were exposed and your diseases, conditions, or illnesses are serviced connects, you may begin to submit claims for benefits immediately. The VA will begin processing these benefits on Friday, June 19. If you have a pending C-123 claim for Agent Orange exposure, you do not need to resubmit those claims.

About C-123 Aircraft and C-123 Veterans

Using C-123 regular airlift aircraft modified for aerial spray of herbicides in the early 1960s, Operation Hades (later renamed Operation Ranch Hand) began with the goal of using herbicides to deprive the Viet Cong with food and vegetation cover. Nearly 20,000 sorties were flown over the next 10 years. For most of the war, Operation Ranch Hand was based at Bien Hoa Air Base (1966–1970), for operations in the Mekong Delta region where U.S. Navy patrol boats were vulnerable to attack from areas of undergrowth along the water’s edge.

The Air Force used 34 UC-123 and UC-123K aircraft or spraying of herbicides, most notably Agent Orange, and some were used until 1971 for spraying insect control. The “U” designation means modified for spray operations; U designation removed when spray apparatus is removed and C-123 resumed normal airlift missions. These aircraft could carry 1,000 gallons of herbicide and spray three gallons per acre over an area 240 feet wide. The concentrations were 20 to 55 times normal agricultural use for killing plants.

In 1970, the Assistant Secretary of Defense suspended the use of Agent Orange (AO). This suspension lasted until September 13, 1971. Agent White was used as a defoliant until supplies ran out on May 9, 1970. The final sortie for Operation Ranch Hand used Agent Blue and occurred on January 7, 1971. Up to this point, the U.S. military had sprayed 11.4 million gallons of Agent Orange, and another 8 million gallons of herbicide agents Blue, Purple, White, Pink, and Green were also sprayed.

In 1972, remaining C-123 aircraft returned to the U.S. and had the spray gear removed and the aircraft put back into service. Some UC-123K assigned to Rickenbacker Air Force Base as part of the 302s Tactical Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve, and the planes were used for insect spray operations worldwide. Other C-123s were sent to Hanscom Air Force Base (soon transferred to Westover Air Force Base in Massachuesetts) and Pittsburgh Air Force Base. No decontamination efforts were ever undertaken on these aircraft, just general cleaning and maintenance.

In 1979, crews at Westover Air Force Base had complained for years of the horrible smell when flying a C-123 nicknamed “Patches”. The plane was in use in Vietnam for spraying herbicides beginning in 1965. The USAF Occupational and Environmental Health Laboratory investigated and found black, viscous, odorous residue in the plane but concluded it was not considered to be a health hazard. In 1979, there was no definitive test for the prescence of dioxin (TCDD).

By 1981, C-123 and UC-123K aircraft were transferred to the USAF aircraft boneyard (called AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona for storage, salvage, resale. The C-123 nicknamed “Patches” was flown to USAF Museum and stored outside.

In 1994, the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB wanted to bring the C-123 plane inside the museum and conducted the required bio-environmental tests. These tests found the aircraft “heavily” contaminated on all test surfaces. All employees were required to begin wearing HAZMAT suits when in or around the plane, which eventually requires three separate decontamination efforts.

Two years later, Lt. Gen. Farrell of HQ Air Force Material Command was informed by Ralph Shoneman, the executive director of AMARG, that the C-123 fleet is contaminated and should be destroyed. A sale of surplus planes is canceled in 1997, and foreign governments who have previously purchased surplus C-123s (Thailand and South Korea) are informed.

In 1999, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base civilian employees at the Boneyard submit a complaint to the inspector general about dioxin exposure and working conditions in and around the C-123 aircraft stored there. A complaint also surfaced at the USAF Surgeon General Office.

In 2007, Air Force retiree Lt. Col. Aaron Olmstead of Hartford, Conn., pursued the first claim from a C-123 veteran with the VA, which is denied. Olmstead appealed the denial, and the judge at the Board of Veterans Appeals rules against him because Olmstead is unable to prove the specific C-123K flown was used in Vietnam for spraying Agent Orange, and that Olmstead is unable to prove the specific aircraft remained contaminated. Olmstead was killed in a private plane crash in 2011. Olmstead’s wife was left with an adult incapacitated son, and her VA dependent’s claim was denied in May 2012.

In 2009, a consultant recommended destruction of the remaining C-123K by smelting and specifically mentioned the need to destroy them immediately due to concern that air crews may learn of the Agent Orange contamination and pursue claims for illnesses with the VA. Later in a separate email, the consultant described those air crews as “trash-haulers, freeloaders” looking “for tax-free dollars from sympathetic congressman.” This is used as authority to destroy the C-123 fleet.

In 2012, the VA agency releases a bulletin on Agent Orange exposure that declares C-123 veterans in the same class as Blue Water veterans and veterans who served in Thailand. The VA says that veterans must prove exposure but presumptive illnesses would not have to have a medical nexus re-established.