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Seeking justice for his fellow vets

Marcus Larson/News-Register<br><b>Wes Carter stands in front of a F-105G Thunderchief, a bomber used during the Vietnam War. Carter was drawn to McMinnville due, in part, to the Evergreen Air Museum.</b>
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Wes Carter stands in front of a F-105G Thunderchief, a bomber used during the Vietnam War. Carter was drawn to McMinnville due, in part, to the Evergreen Air Museum.

Nov 12, 2013 | 2 Comments


By Starla Pointer
Of the News-Register



Now retired from the military and from business, Carter still is acting like a medic — only this time, he's helping his fellow veterans who are fighting for their benefits, as well as their lives.

Carter, who lives in McMinnville, is chairman of the C-123 Veterans Association, an organization pushing for justice for the air crew members, medics and nurses who flew in planes that carried Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Fifteen hundred to 2,000 people staffed the contaminated planes between 1972 to 1982, Carter said. Some flew in them one year, others the entire time. All were exposed to Agent Orange, raising the likelihood they would contract cancer and other diseases, or give birth to children with defects.

"When we started flying those planes, we knew they've been used for Agent Orange, but we didn't know how dangerous it was," said Carter, a disabled veteran who suffers from cancer and heart problems. 

Back then, crews understood neither the toxicity of the chemical nor that exposure was unavoidable in the contaminated planes.

"It was the era of innocence," he said. "We knew it was Agent Orange, but we didn't know about Agent Orange."

If they only had known then what they know now, he said, they could have refused to fly in contaminated planes. As a flight examiner, Carter could have declared them unsafe. Or the Air Force could have had all the former Agent Orange carriers decontaminated.

Instead, crews scrubbed out visible Agent Orange residue the best they could, and used air fresheners in an attempt to cover the residual odor. When the chemicals made pilots too nauseated, they turned back.

Years later, Carter said, the Air Force tested the planes and officially declared them contaminated. But it didn't notify vets that they had been exposed to toxic chemicals — something any private business would have been required to do, he said.

"They decided not to cause us undue stress," Carter said bitterly. "How nice."

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Some of the people who flew on the C-123s ended up retiring from the military after completing a career or, like Carter, being injured on duty. They qualify for veteran's benefits, unrelated to any Agent Orange claims.

But many of those who were exposed don't qualify for medical benefits — at least not yet, though Carter aims to change that. He said numerous experts — including his own doctor at the Oregon Health Sciences University — have attested to the fact Agent Orange exposure increases the chance of contracting cancer 200-fold, in additon to causing other kinds of extreme harm.

Yet the Veterans Administration routinely turns down claims from members of C-123 flight crews. That process can take about two years, Carter said, and the ensuring appeal process can take another five.

Appeals filed so far have been successful, he said. But the vets, many of them now in their 60s, are left to fend for themselves during the application and appeal process, often burning through their life savings and going into debt to pay for medical treatment.

Some have lost their homes. Some have died wondering whether the families they leave behind will be able to resurface after nearly drowning in bills.

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Carter's best friend was one of those. Paul Bailey of New Hampshire, with whom Carter co-founded the C-123 Veterans Association, died Oct. 28 of aggressive prostate cancer.

Bailey spent the last years of his life wrangling with the VA and worrying about expenses. But in a way, he was one of the lucky ones.

Shortly before his death, he called Carter in tears. "I got my benefits," he said. "Now my wife can stay in our home."

The idea that any ill person has to worry and fight for their due offends Carter. The idea that his best friend had to fight the VA in addition to fighting terminal cancer makes him angry. 

"They should be able to focus on their health and their family," he said. "They're not supposed to be put through the ringer."

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Carter and Bailey were not only best friends, but also lived closely parallel lives. Both Army brats, they grew up in Tacoma and attended Clover Park High School, although they wouldn't meet until years later.

Bailey graduated in 1963 and became a medic in the Army. He would go on to college, earning bachelor's and master's degrees, before entering the Air Force Reserve.

Carter finished high school in 1964 in France, where his father had been transferred by the military.

He enrolled at San Diego State, then transferred to the University of Maryland, before enlisting in the Army. He would finished his degree years later, just before he was commissioned.

Carter trained as a medical corpsman. He was responsible for taking care of 200 men in the field, whether that meant attending to the wounded, lancing boils or checking sanitation and food safety.

He was good at the job, he said, and the job was good for him.

"My attitude was adjusted by being a medic," he said. "No politics. Just caring for people.

"To save somebody's life," he said, "that stays with you forever."

After his tour of duty, Carter transferred to the Air Force Reserve. He combined his volunteer military job with a paying job in marketing and manufacturing.

Not long after that, he met Bailey. They flew together for a few months before realizing their common background in Washington state and the Army.

Based at Westover Air Force Base near Boston, they became close friends as they flew the same flights. They won their commissions on the same day and were the first to salute one another. They deployed together to the Gulf War.

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Generally, two medics and two nurses worked together to care for the patients being moved from hospital to hospital — from an Army hospital in Germany to one in the U.S., for instance, or from the battlefield to a treatment center in a safer part of the world. 

Sometimes they flew on a C-130, but mostly it was a C-123. Their unit had 24 C-123s assigned to it, 10 of them former Vietnam Agent Orange carriers.

Designed during WWII, the C-123 was prized because its combination of propeller and jet engines allowed it to take off and land on very short airfields. And more than 40 patients could be stacked in its bays.

It wasn't built for comfort, though. The ride was rough, the interior was always either too hot or too cold, and "it had no coffee pot and no bathrooms," Carter said.

The reservists gave the functional planes nicknames, mostly affectionate: Ponderous Polly and Thunderous Pig, for example. They called one "Patches" because it had taken so many hits in Vietnam — hits that had punctured it pressured tanks of Agent Orange, leaving sticky residue in every crevice.

"The C-123 was no Cadillac, but it would get you home," he said. "That was the holy mission."

Nobody thought about the health problems that would surface years later.

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Carter retired in the early 1990s, after his injury left him disabled with neck and back problems. Bailey continued on until 2006, when he ended his career at 37 years.

Bailey stayed on the East Coast, while Carter and his wife, Joan, made the move to Oregon in 2002.

"We were looking for a place on the West Coast," he said. "We saw the air museum, we stopped for coffee and we met Elaine Taylor."

He said the retiring school superintendent told them all about the McMinnville, and the chance conversation ended up changing their lives. In fact, they bought Taylor's house when she moved away.

"This is a special town," he said, noting in particular the number of military and civilian aviation workers drawn here by the museum.

Although they were on different sides of the country, Carter and Bailey kept in close touch over the years.

In 2011, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Carter phoned his friend. "I have cancer, too," Bailey told him, revealing that he had a more aggressive, faster moving form of the disease.

They knew of many other former colleagues who also were sick: their wing commander, the chief nurse, the flight surgeon, to name but a few. Too many people from a small group for it to be a coincidence.

"All were dying of cancer, ALS, heart disease ... " Carter said. "And all of us had the Agent Orange exposure in common."

So Carter and Bailey formed their group to advocate for C-123 veterans and help them work through the process of getting benefits. Members of the group have testified in Washington, D.C., and recruited members of Congress to their cause, including Oregon's Suzanne Bonamici and Jeff Merkley.

They made YouTube videos, drew up petitions, sent letters to the president. They set up a website, at C123Kcancer.org, and a blog, at C123Kcancer.blogspot.com.

Carter went on to write a book about his group and the roadblocks it has been facing. It's available through the Internet.

Called "Decades of Deception —USAF C-123 Veterans: VA Illegally Denies Agent Orange Claims," the electronic version includes video and audio clips of interviews with veterans.

The cover features a photo of a crew in hazmat suits in front of one of the C-123s — an inspection team suited up for a brief check of the plane before it was destroyed as hazardous waste in 2010.

Carter noted, "When we were in those planes for hours, we wore regular flight suits."

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By”   column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or spointer@newsregister.com.

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Comments

07:46 am - Wed, November 13 2013
Major W. Carter said:
Many thanks to the News Register for caring about this issue, so important to these 1500 veterans. We appreciate the concern shown these and other veterans. A petty point: the C-123 did not fly in Vietnam, nor in Korea, but began service in 1954 and flew through 1982. It first saw combat in Vietnam where many flew cargo and aeromedical evacuation missions, and 34 flew Agent Orange spray missions.

Columbia University, OHSU, Portland VA Medical Center, Boston University, EPA, National Institutes of Health, and the CDC have all looked into this concern and agree: the C-123s were contaminated, and the aircrews were exposed.

VA disagrees, having redefined within their own agency the very word "exposed" to add the requirement of bioavailability. They claim that no exposure to a toxin occurs unless and until the victim can prove some medical impact of that toxin. With dioxin, the toxin within much of the Agent Orange, such a nexus is impossible to establish with an individual exposure. It takes a larger population to discover a statistical significance to the dioxin in exposure, such as the millions who served in Vietnam. The VA's position has been called "unscientific" by the other experts.

Unscientific or not, it is devastating to our exposed veterans suffering the illnesses associated with Agent Orange exposure. The VA needs to reexamine their position!
08:49 am - Wed, November 13 2013
Lulu said:
Vietnam--the war that keeps on taking.

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