It's been a tough, four-year battle, but some Westover Air Reserve Base veterans are one step closer now to receiving the medical care they believe they deserve.
Veterans of the Air Force Reserve 741st Tactical Airlift Squadron say they were exposed to Agent Orange during the decade they flew C-123 Provider planes from Vietnam.
According to our media partners Mass Live and The Republican, they could now receive full medical benefits thanks to an Institute of Medicine report.
Federal health officials have ruled flight crews at Westover ARB were exposed to the herbicide, but some veterans say they wish they knew it sooner.
Veterans such as retired Master Sgt. Richard Matte, who after years of hospital visits, learned his three rounds of bladder cancer, lung cancer, nerve disorders and a heart transplant, could be because of Agent Orange, an herbicide used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War.
Matte is now confined to a wheelchair and takes several pills a day. His illnesses began back in the mid-1990's, just before he retired.
“You know, little things,” he said of his symptoms. “All of a sudden, I need glasses.”
Matte never served in Vietnam, but he did fly C-123 Provider planes that had flown there, ones that had dumped Agent Orange throughout the country. Those planes have since been shredded, according to our media partners Mass Live and The Republican.
"Because it was a distinct, foul odor that emanated from some of these planes," Matte said.
When asked if he remembered that smell, he said, “Oh, yes.”
The VA helps those exposed to Agent Orange who fought in Vietnam, but hadn't helped those like Matte who were exposed to the chemical, until now.
The Institute of Medicine committee studied the issue and found these men and women could have ingested Agent Orange.
"Ecstatic, but it's not finished,” Matte said of the report, adding there is still work to be done.
According to the report, veterans like Matte should now be eligible for benefits like those who served in Vietnam if they come ill from a disease known to be caused by Agent Orange.
"They've finally said yes, we're wrong. That's a big a foot hole,” Matte said of the VA, adding that he doesn't believe his health insurance company should have to pay for something caused by another company.
Matte and other reservists say their biggest battle now is getting the word out about their exposure to Agent Orange, and to find those they served with who may be experiencing similar symptoms, so they, too, can get the help they deserve.
U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, said in a statement, "I strongly we believe we have an obligation to provide care for our veterans who defended our country and put themselves in harm's way. If these Westover based fliers were exposed to deadly toxins while on duty, and this reports suggests they were, I think the VA should help them. And that is why I have written the VA on their behalf. I think these veterans are entitled to these health benefits.”
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