KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
During the Vietnam War, an unknown number of American troops and Vietnamese civilians were exposed to Agent Orange - that's the chemical defoliant the U.S. used in Vietnam. It turns out Air Force reservists in some U.S. states may have also been exposed to the chemical. That's because the planes used to spread Agent Orange were used again for another decade by the Air Force reserves in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. From member station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Lewis Wallace reports that this group of vets is pushing the VA for recognition and starting to get it.
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LEWIS WALLACE, BYLINE: A video on loop at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton shows off C-123 planes. These were used to spray Agent Orange and pesticides during the Vietnam War. The only one you can still see, nicknamed Patches, has been on display inside this big hangar since the mid-90s when it was decontaminated. It's a wide, clunky-looking cargo plane.
ED KIENLE: Well, they're big and slow (laughter), and they're extremely noisy.
WALLACE: That's Ed Kienle who was a flight mechanic for most of the '70s on a plane just like Patches at Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus.
KIENLE: We knew that most of the airplanes that we flew had done duty in Vietnam.
WALLACE: Back then, the issues with Agent Orange hadn't all come to light. For years, guys like Ed Kienle flew long missions in close contact with leftover chemical residues. He was one of an estimated 2,000 people who crewed on those planes here in the U.S.
KIENLE: Well, we knew it was pretty nasty. The plane smelled bad, but, you know, you really weren't that concerned about it at the time. Until later on, you know, after you retire and these health issues start popping up.
WALLACE: Now lots of the folks who flew C-123s have health problems that the VA concedes have been associated with Agent Orange - diseases like prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma or diabetes. But it's hard to show cause and effect in a lot of these cases. Because of that, vets who were in Vietnam and have health problems that could be associated with Agent Orange can get benefits based on just the possibility they were exposed.
The VA offers disability compensation and money for survivors of the deceased. But as of now, almost all benefits claims related to Agent Orange for C-123 reservists have been denied. Dr. Jeanne Stellman is an Agent Orange expert at Columbia University. She worked on an article published last year that blasts the VA for ignoring the science.
JEANNE STELLMAN: It seemed to us to be a total no-brainer that there was exposure possible.
WALLACE: Since 2011, a growing group of reservists and their families have been calling for the VA to recognize C-123 vets. A study out in January commissioned by the VA confirms that many reservists were likely exposed. Dr. Ralph Erickson is a VA health expert.
RALPH ERICKSON: I think we're a learning organization. We're able to make the adjustments that are necessary, and we're basically moving forward at this point.
WALLACE: Erickson says a task force will make recommendations to the VA secretary on next steps within months. For Barbara Carson, it feels like too little too late. Her husband, who worked on a C-123 at Rickenbacker, died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 54. Years later she filed a claim with the VA for survivors benefits linked to Agent Orange exposure. That claim was denied.
BARBARA CARSON: I guess I was naive enough to believe that they would have been responsible in their reaction.
WALLACE: She says it's frustrating because if her husband had been on the ground in Vietnam she'd be eligible for benefits because of the presumption of exposure. For NPR News, I'm Lewis Wallace.
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