Operation Ranch Hand—in which the U.S. military sprayed 18 million gallons of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam—lasted from 1962 to 1971. The program was meant to deprive the Viet Cong of manioc and rice crops, as well as to destroy the jungle they used as cover. Air Force crews in specially modified Fairchild C-123s did the spraying, as did members of the South Vietnamese Air Force in H-34 helicopters.
Between April 1969 and February 1972, some 30 to 40 C-123 aircraft used in Operation Ranch Hand returned to the U.S., around 24 of which were distributed among Air Force reserve units. (Another 13 were possibly sold to other nations for military and domestic use.) In the decade that followed, approximately 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force reservists in the U.S. trained and worked on UC-123 aircraft. (“UC” was the designation given to C-123 equipped with spray apparatus).
Their exposure to Agent Orange is the subject of a recent study by the Institute of Medicine. Some of the reservists had applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs for coverage under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, but their applications were denied as ineligible, since the reservists were not Vietnam-era veterans and/or hadn’t served in Vietnam. In 2014, the VA asked the Institute of Medicine to evaluate the reservists’ exposure.
The Institute report states that after the UC-123s returned to the U.S., they were reconditioned and returned to service, a process that took six to 12 months. Members of the C-123 Veterans Association have testified that Air Force reserve crews had to remove residue from the aircraft interior and wash the exterior as part of this servicing. A reservist typically spent anywhere from 4.5 to 12 hours per shift on board a C-123.
The study considered air and wipe samples—from 1979, 1994, 1996, and 2009—taken from three aircraft. Results showed that residual chemicals from Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed in Vietnam remained on the aircraft’s interior. One of the most famous C-123s was “Patches,” an aircraft hit more than 500 times by enemy fire while flying defoliation missions. After its reserve service, the aircraft was transfered to the National Museum of the USAF in 1980. It was tested in 1994 before undergoing restoration, and was determined to be “highly contaminated” with the herbicide.
The Institute of Medicine panel concluded that it is “plausible that the C-123s did contribute to some adverse health consequences among the Air Force Reservists who worked in Operation Ranch Hand C-123s after the planes returned from Vietnam.”
The report appears to have been heeded. According to the Associated Press, “the Department of Veterans Affairs now says Air Force reservists who became ill after being exposed to Agent Orange residue while working on planes after the Vietnam War should be eligible for disability benefits.”