Leave no man behind: Belchertown veteran fights VA for crewmates after peacetime Agent Orange exposure at Westover, other bases
A picture of Archer Battista taken during flight training in 1969. He is climbing into a T-388 Talon .
Arch Battista, 68, of Belchertown, shows a photo of C-123 cargo airplane, at his house on Saturday, July 5, 2014. Battista is a retired Air Force colonel who was active duty in Vietnam from 1968 to 1973. The C-123 aircraft is one of the planes he flew on training missions from Westover air base.
during his service.
Photo courtesy Archer Battista
A C-123 cargo plane from Westover that had previously been part Operation Ranch Hand, taken in the 1970s.
Arch Battista, 68, of Belchertown, stands inside of his house on Saturday, July 5, 2014. Battista is a retired Air Force Colonel who was active duty between 1968 to 1973.
Archer Battista visitng the Bradley Air Museum in 2013.
BELCHERTOWN — One lesson retired Air Force Col. Archer Battista says he learned in his six years in Vietnam was never to leave anyone behind.
This explains why Battista, 68, has since 2010 thrown his energy into an effort to get pilots who flew stateside planes contaminated by Agent Orange qualified for disability services and compensation.
Battista knows about Agent Orange, a defoliant the United States dumped on the Vietnamese countryside during the war. In early 2009, when he was 62, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which he is still being treated. Because he served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1973, he qualified for a variety of benefits won for Vietnam veterans after a long and drawn-out fight with the government.
In 1991, the government acquiesced and began authorizing disability, medical and survivor benefits for “presumed exposure” to Agent Orange. Veterans who served in Vietnam (as well as the Korean demilitarized zone during the Vietnam era) are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. This qualification means these veterans suffering from illnesses associated with Agent Orange don’t have to prove an association between their malady and their military service.
The “presumed exposure” policy speeds the process of getting treatment and coverage for so-called “Agent Orange presumptive illnesses,” which include cancers such as prostate, lymphocytic leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancers of the lung, larynx or trachea, soft tissue sarcoma and type 2 diabetes.
But there are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people who flew the C-123 Provider cargo planes infamous for their role in dumping Agent Orange in Vietnam in a mission dubbed Operation Ranch Hand. Only later was it determined that Agent Orange was highly toxic. It would take decades before veterans sickened by exposure to it would be treated accordingly by the Veterans Administration.
Now the pilots and crews from these domestic missions undertaken from three air bases, including Westover, in the 1970s and early ’80s, are seeking recognition and benefits for illnesses they believe were caused by the time they spent in contaminated planes. Though there were no barrels of Agent Orange on the planes, the aircraft were deemed to be contaminated — and subsequently have been removed from use and destroyed by the military.
But because these people spent no time in Vietnam, they don’t qualify for Agent Orange benefits.
According to Genevive Billia, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, the issue of stateside exposure to Agent Orange is now under review. She emailed a statement on the matter to the Gazette.
“Due to the consideration of possible long-term adverse health effects from potential exposure to Agent Orange in C-123 post Vietnam crew members, VA has formally asked that highly respected and independent National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine to study this issue and report back to the department.”
Meanwhile, the VA’s Web site has a statement on the matter that reads: “The risk of long-term health problems from exposure to Agent Orange residue on post-Vietnam C-123 airplanes is minimal. Veterans may file a claim for disability compensation for health problems they believe are related to exposure to Agent Orange residue on post-Vietnam C-123 airplanes. Veterans must show on a factual basis that they were exposed in order to receive disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure. VA decides these claims on a case-by-case basis.”
Battista sees this as a grave injustice to the veterans who served after the war at Westover and other bases. He minces no words on this.
“They’re getting screwed,” he said.
Soldiers spraying Agent Orange, February 1969, from the Michael Sheets Collection of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University.
A long reserve career
After his six years of active duty, Archer Battista logged a 27-year career in the Air Force Reserves, retiring May 1, 2001. He also has had a long career as a civil litigation lawyer as a partner with the Holyoke law firm Lyon & Fitzpatrick. These days, he is listed on the firm’s letterhead as “of counsel,” which is legalese for semi-retired.
And while Battista may have wanted to devote his retirement years to some of his many interests (history) and civic pursuits (YMCA boards), his cancer diagnosis — and then his increasing involvement in the effort to get this new group of veterans covered for Agent Orange benefits — got in the way.
When he was in Vietnam, Battista flew the Cessna 02A observation airplane for missions from Danang to Laos.
When he was back home on duty with the Air Force Reserves, he started flying the C-123 cargo planes on training missions, steadily from 1974 until 1982. Battista estimates he flew hundreds of these training missions, and he recalls that a couple times each winter — most notably when the plane’s heater was cranked up — crews would fall into bouts of uncontrollable vomiting.
He says he’d get a report in the cockpit from the loadmaster in the back of the plane with some variation of, “Art, the smell back here is unbearable. We can’t go on with this mission.”
Battista adds: “They’d be saying what we already knew, because we could smell it, too.”
Battista says his immediate response would be that he couldn’t abort a training mission, until he realized that a training mission in which most of the crew can’t stop throwing up is not much of a training mission. So, he’d wind up canceling the flight.
In those days much less was known about Agent Orange and its noxious elements — but still, Battista says, he and other crew members started wondering what was wrong with the Spray Birds.
“We knew they were Spray Birds that flew the Ranch Hand Mission, but they told us that there was no risk of any kind,” he said.
One of the men who flew the C-123 Provider cargo planes alongside Battista was Wes Carter, a retired major who now lives in Colorado, but who flew at Westover from 1974 to 1991. Carter, who founded the C-123 Veterans Association in 2011, did not serve in Vietnam, and is fighting to receive Agent Orange-related coverage from his many years at Westover.
For him, as for Battista, the fight is deeply personal — but also being waged on behalf of others.
“We have our crew mates dying from recognized Agent Orange illnesses,” he said.
Carter has testified before government hearings, filed complaints with the Department of Defense, fought for data through the Freedom of Information Act and worked with other veterans groups to agitate for the government to widen the net to cover more veterans. He is Web master for the site C-123 Veterans Agent Orange Exposure 1972-1982
For his part, Battista said when he was first diagnosed with cancer, he didn’t link it to his military service at all.
But when a former Air Force buddy reminded him that prostate cancer is one of the Agent Orange presumptive diseases, he sought out and received care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. He says he received excellent care, though subsequently, he moved elsewhere for continued care.
Battista he has no quibbles with the care he has received. As he puts it, “I don’t have any skin in the game.”
But he’s got plenty to say about men he flew with at Westover Air Base in Chicopee, who he, Carter, and others believe have been abandoned by the Veterans Affairs department.
“It’s appalling. I’m a pretty mainstream guy. I spent 22 years in the U.S. Air Force. I loved all of it,” he said. “I just shake my head. I’m thinking what in the hell is the matter with these people?”
In an interview at his secluded home at the end of a long driveway off Summit Street — where an American flag was stationed on the mailbox on the day a Gazette reporter and photographer visited this month — Battista was overcome with emotion several times.
Neatly dressed in blue jeans, a gray and yellow “Livestrong” T-shirt and yellow Livestrong rubber bracelet, with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he apologized each time his eyes welled up, saying this was not like him. It’s a combination of the medicine he takes for his cancer, and his feelings about the issue.
“Here’s the point. The point is there are all these guys and gals who spent just as much time in a C-123 that I did, but they didn’t go to Vietnam,” he said. “It’s abominable. It’s inexcusable, and incomprehensible to me.”
Battista has written letters to political leaders, met with a representative from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s office and been involved in spreading the word about the issue online by supporting Carter’s efforts through the group he founded. The two first met when they flew together at Westover.
The appeals to Neal’s office paid off. In a letter to Ronald Maurer, director of the Congressional Liaison Service dated June 2, Neal wrote:
“According to a Yale Law School study on this matter, a 1994 Air Force commissioned study of a C-123 plane flown both in Operation Ranch Hand and after the Vietnam War found it still contained enough of the carcinogen dioxin to subject a restoration worker repairing the plane to ‘an acceptable level for lifetime exposure.’ The plane as a result was deemed ‘heavily contaminated,’ 12 years after active crews worked on the plane. This surface presence of dioxin coincides with the National Academy of Science statement that ‘exposure of humans to TCDD [dioxin] is thought to occur primarily via the mouth, skin and lungs,’ confirming the exposure of the crewmen of these planes to dioxin.
“Taking into account this information and the high levels of illnesses known to be linked to Agent Orange occurring in these Westover veterans, I believe these men and women are entitled to the same benefits granted to those who served on the ground in Vietnam.”
Battista believes with letters like that and other forms of political pressure, the veterans administration will change a policy he says is wrongheaded and unfair.
He takes particular issue with comments from a former Air Force consultant saying veterans seeking coverage for exposure while in the United States are “freeloaders.”
“This isn’t a fight that should be personalized. We shouldn’t be name-calling,” said Battista. “Every time I read that, it makes me very angry.”
Meantime, he is waiting for the government to change its policy and do what he believes is the right thing.
“I just can’t believe this is happening,” he says. “They’ve gotta flip. They’ve got to understand they’ve got this wrong.”