By Hope Yen
and Nathan Kraatz
WILMINGTON — For Ed Kienle, it was a moment of relief.
The U.S. government recently began providing disability benefits to as many as 2,100 Air Force reservists and active-duty forces exposed to Agent Orange residue on airplanes used in the Vietnam War.
“You hope to get something done, and when it finally happens, it’s quite a good feeling,” said Kienle, a 73-year-old retired Tech. Sgt. from Wilmington. Kienle worked on a Fairchild C-123 plane as a flight mechanic from 1972 to 1980.
Kienle developed skin cancer, respiratory problems and has indications of prostate cancer. He and other members of the “Buckeye Wing” stationed in Ohio pushed for disability benefits for those who worked on C-123s and were exposed to Agent Orange residue.
C-123s were used to spray millions of gallons of the chemical herbicide during the Vietnam War.
Despite the contact, Kienle said, “The VA was pretty adamant about it. If you weren’t in Vietnam,” you weren’t getting Agent Orange-related benefits.
The new rule adds to an Agent Orange-related caseload that already makes up 1 out of 6 disability checks issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The expected cost over 10 years is $47.5 million, with separate health care coverage adding to the price tag.
“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.
The VA’s change was precipitated by an Institute of Medicine study released in January. That study concluded that some C-123 reservists suffered higher risks of health problems due to exposure to Agent Orange residue.
The new federal rule covers an expanded group of military personnel who flew or worked on C-123 aircraft in the United States from 1969 to 1986 and were believed to have been exposed to Agent Orange residue. It’s the first time the VA 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. Still, roughly 200,000 “Blue Water” veterans who claim exposure will not be covered.
Kienle said almost everyone in the “Buckeye Wing” had been notified of the change.
Those affected individuals under the new rule will now be eligible to receive disability aid including survivor benefits and medical care. The veterans must show they worked on a contaminated plane and later developed any of 14 medical conditions such as prostate cancer, diabetes and leukemia that the VA has determined to be connected to Agent Orange.
Affected veterans may begin to submit applications for benefits immediately, with VA processing to begin. Pending C-123 claims to the VA do not need to be resubmitted.
In Clinton County, Veterans’ Service Officer “Mac” McKibben said Ohioans who believe they qualify for disability benefits due to exposure to Agent Orange residue should contact a certified Veterans Service Officer (VSO), like him.
He said dialing 888-387-6446, the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, should connect residents to their county’s Veterans Service Commission.
From there, McKibben said veterans will need to fill out a packet of information, a VA Form 21-526EZ, which a VSO can help with.
He said veterans should bring the following, if available:
• Discharge or separation papers
• USAF Form 2096 (unit where assigned at the time of the training action)
• USAF Form 5 (aircraft flight duties)
• USAF Form 781 (aircraft maintenance duties)
• Dependency records (marriage and children’s birth certificates)
• Medical evidence (doctor and hospital reports)
Veterans groups expressed tempered relief, expressing hope it would signal a new government willingness to acknowledge a wider range of toxic health risks undertaken by military personnel, such as Gulf War neurotoxins and burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before requesting the Institute of Medicine report in 2014, the VA had repeatedly denied claims submitted since 2011 by C-123 reservists, saying it was unlikely they could have been exposed to Agent Orange from the residue.
Rick Weidman, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, described the announcement a “new day” in the VA’s handling of toxic exposure cases. He called on McDonald to re-examine the VA’s position as well on coverage for Blue Water veterans.
“It’s time to make full amends to surviving spouses and families,” Weidman said.
The VA said those seeking more information can call an agency hotline, 1-800-749-8387, go online to http://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/AgentOrange-C123.asp or send an email to [email protected].
EDITOR’S NOTE: Nathan Kraatz contributed to this report by the Associated Press.
Reach Nathan Kraatz at 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.