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By Mike Francis | mfrancis@oregonian.com
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The Oregonian on June 30, 2014 at 11:05 AM

At least 10 veterans exposed to Agent Orange while serving aboard aircraft contaminated by the Vietnam-era defoliant have died after being denied care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, two veterans groups charged Sunday.

The veterans, who served between 1972 and 1982, flew or maintained the C-123 aircraft that were used to spray Agent Orange on Southeast Asian forests during the Vietnam War. They maintain that the residue from those flights exposed them to deadly toxins – a charge the Air Force has disputed.

While the VA has said it presumes that certain illnesses among Vietnam veterans were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, the veterans groups said they don't extend the same presumption to those postwar veterans who flew in contaminated aircraft. The reason is that the agency has adopted an unscientific notion of the definition of "exposure," the groups said.

"VA continues to deny all claims from post-Vietnam C-123 veterans, while at the same time deceptively assuring Congress that claims are considered 'on a case-by-case basis,'" the Vietnam Veterans of America and the C-123 Veterans Association said in a joint statement. "In fact, VA does not tell Congress that all C-123 claims are refused following a year or two delay."

This argument is playing out in a more restrained way before the Institute of Medicine, which recently took testimony on the question of whether C-123 veterans were exposed to dangerously high levels of toxins from contaminated aircraft. On one side was a VA consultant named A.L. Young, who has long argued that any exposure to Agent Orange residues by C-123 crews was "negligible." On the other was a C-123 veteran and an array of scientists including Rutgers professor and microbiology researcher Peter Kahn.

"What the government has been doing," he told the panel earlier in June, is "putting up the façade of scientific objectivity in order to avoid action. I regard it as a failure of political courage and moral courage."

Instead of stonewalling claims from C-123 veterans, he said, the VA should treat them as it does other veterans who suffer from service-related injuries.

The veterans groups didn't name any of the deceased veterans, except for Lt. Col. Paul Bailey of Bath, N.H., who died of cancer last year after the VA denied his claim, then approved it after he was featured in a Washington Post story and members of Congress raised questions. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was among those who asked then-Secretary Eric Shinseki to examine the way the VA was treating claims from C-123 crews.

The Boston Globe focused on the issue Sunday, featuring the case of 70-year-old Richard Matte, a retired Air Force reservist and C-123 crew member who's had a heart transplant, his leg amputated and been treated for bladder cancer, lung cancer and nerve disorders. He is one of about 50 C-123 veterans or their survivors living in Massachusetts, according to the C-123 Veterans Association.

With at least 10 C-123 veterans already dead from diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, "surviving C-123 veterans do not want more comrades' names added to this list," the joint statement said.

The C-123 Veterans Association is headed by former McMinnville resident Wes Carter who's also being treated for cancer. He now lives in Colorado. He maintains the C-123 Veteran Agent Orange Exposure website.

-Mike Francis

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