The Air Force C-123 transport plane, used for spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.)

It’s been a long and bitter battle spanning years, but as of this week Air Force and Air Force Reserve veterans who might have been exposed to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange on contaminated C-123 aircraft in the post-Vietnam era are now allowed to file for financial compensation with disability claims.

The decision by Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald could affect 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force and Air Force Reserve personnel who worked, ate, and slept on the planes and might suffer from any of more than a dozen medical conditions – including fatal cancers –  that researchers recently say are linked to Agent Orange exposure.

McDonald’s decision to expand benefits comes after a VA-ordered report this year by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, “Post-Vietnam Dioxin Exposure in Agent Orange-Contaminated C-123 Aircraft”.

The already backlogged benefits department has prepared for the onslaught of cases, the VA said.

[Read about the battle to get benefits by sick vets suffering from Agent-Orange exposure.]

The report found evidence that those who served aboard or worked on the C-123 aircraft were exposed to the herbicide, both during and after Vietnam, when many of the aircraft remained in service for aeromedical transportation or in a mosquito abatement role back in the U.S.

The C-123s were used to spray Agent Orange from 1962 to 1971. That was part of Operation Ranch Hand. After the war, about 1,500 Air National Guard and Reserve crew members flew the planes on cargo missions.

“Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do,” said McDonald. “We thank the IOM for its thorough review that provided the supporting evidence needed to ensure we can now fully compensate any former crew member who develops an Agent Orange-related disability.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars has been pushing for this decision for years, said VFW National Commander John W. Stroud, “because something inside these aircraft was making people sick years after the plane last flew a defoliating mission in Vietnam. We thank the Institute of Medicine for determining a contributing link between exposure and the 14 medical conditions, and Secretary McDonald for making a quick call to care for more veterans.”

In a press release, the VFW says, “All airmen who were assigned to flight, ground or medical crew duties at Lockbourne/Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio (the 906th and 907th Tactical Air Groups or 355th and 356th Tactical Airlift Squadrons), at Massachusetts’s Westover AFB (the 731st Tactical Air Squadron and 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron), or with the 758th Airlift Squadron in Pittsburgh, during the period 1969 to 1986, and who may have developed an Agent Orange-related disability, are encouraged to file a disability compensation claim through the VA’s eBenefits web portal”

The VFW is also offering free assistance.