Von Jones sits at a conference room table, a yellow legal pad in his hands. On it are written the names of 40 of his former co-workers at Vitro Services, a defense contractor that once managed the test ranges on Eglin Air Force Base’s reservation.
According to Jones, many of the people on the list died from illnesses that scientists have linked to exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide made with the toxic chemical compound dioxin.
“There are probably more than this,” the Crestview resident said as he flipped through the pages. “Of course, some folks might have gotten some of these conditions whether they were exposed or not. But it sure is interesting that so many people got sick, don’t you think?”
‘What went on’
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the term “Agent Orange”?
For many people, the word is probably Vietnam, where an estimated 2 million American service members and 4 million Vietnamese citizens were exposed to the powerful herbicide and others like it between 1962 and 1971.
For men like Jones and his fellow range technicians at Vitro, however, the term brings back memories of a very different place, far from the jungles of Vietnam. For them, “Agent Orange” will always be synonymous with Eglin Air Force Base’s Site C-52A, where the herbicide was tested from 1962 to 1970.
“Everybody always talks about the guys in Vietnam,” said DeFuniak Springs resident Jody Mitchem, one of Jones’ former co-workers at Vitro. “No one ever talks about what went on down here.”
A grid on a map
Located about a mile and a half northeast of the community of Choctaw Beach in Walton County, Site C-52A is a one square-mile plot carved out of the massive Eglin test ranges. These days, the location is off-limits to the public. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was a very busy place.
At that time, the site served as a spray grid for Eglin’s testing of Agent Orange and other herbicides. Employees of Vitro Services played critical roles in the process.
“The grid was marked off, and every 500 feet there was what we called a ‘sniffer station’,” recalled former range technician Donald Cutts of Niceville. “In between each sniffer station was a pole with a six-inch square paper card on top of it where the spray would collect. We’d go down the rows and collect the sample cards in a box and take them back to Eglin after every mission. We didn’t wear gloves or masks or nothing.”
“We would park one on the east end of the grid with the light burning, and one on the west end,” Gatlin recalled. “The aircraft would come across from east to west, and when the pilot reached the amber light on the east side, he turned on his spray. When he reached the light on the other side, he turned it off.”
While the planes were flying directly overhead, neither Gatlin nor any of his co-workers wore any protective gear.
“Our only directions were to get in the truck and roll the windows up,” he said with a rueful chuckle. ”But most of the time you couldn’t roll them up because it didn’t have air conditioning, and it would be 100 degrees outside.
“We were told as soon as the test was over to go and wash the vehicle,” Gatlin added. “There was never any mention of washing ourselves.”
As Gatlin remembers it, the herbicide that rained down from the sky turned the trucks a bright pink.
“Even after we washed them, it would take weeks before the sun would bleach them white again,” he recalled.
’Don’t ask no questions’
Ordinarily, the spray missions lasted about an hour. Usually there would be 15 to 25 people on the site, performing a variety of tasks, including filming the missions.
On one occasion, however, photographer Tommy Brown was told to shut down his camera immediately.
“They called me on the radio and said, ‘Don’t ask no questions,’ ” Brown said. “By the time we closed the camera, this stuff hit us like mud before we could get down from the top of the tower where we were filming. We got the full impact.”
The planes often came in as low as 50 feet above the ground, which may have resulted in more exposure for the range technicians. To make matters worse, Jones said the concentration of the herbicide was significantly greater than what was used in Vietnam.
“The research I’ve seen shows that each hectare at Eglin received at least 1,300 times more dioxin than a hectare in Vietnam,” he said.
‘We’re dying off’
In 2011, Jones was diagnosed with cancer. During a visit to the doctor’s office, he ran into one of his old supervisors from his Vitro days.
“We hadn’t seen each other in 10 or 15 years, so we just started talking,” Jones said. “He told me, ‘Von, we’re dying off.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re getting old.’ ” seven or eight people who had died. After that, I went home and started checking into it.”
Nowhere to go
For many years before and after the Vietnam War ended, U.S. officials denied that Agent Orange exposure was harmful.
“They told us there wasn’t anything in it that could hurt us,” DeFuniak Spring resident Miles “Peg” Nowling said. “They said it was just like the stuff you used on the farm.”
But as the evidence linking the herbicide to a long list of illnesses grew stronger, the government began to offer compensation to a growing number of veterans who had come in contact with it.
Civilians like the range technicians from Vitro, however, continue to be overlooked.
All of the men who spoke to the Daily News are suffering from medical conditions they suspect are related to Agent Orange. Joseph Heaton of DeFuniak Springs is fighting multiple illnesses.
“The spray killed every bit of foliage it touched,” he recalled. “I worked at this site for 33 years, and when I left, most vegetation had not grown back. What had was extremely twisted and deformed.”
On several occasions, Heaton was covered with Agent Orange from head to toe. All these years later, tests show the chemical is still in his bloodstream.
A story to tell
Most of the Vitro range technicians have long since given up hope of ever receiving compensation for their illnesses. The men say they have never received any sort of formal notification from the government or their former employer acknowledging their exposure to Agent Orange.
Congress never acted on a recommendation from the General Accounting Office to assist civilians who were exposed outside of Vietnam, and laws protecting government contractors make it extremely difficult for the men to sue their former employer.
In 1993, Vitro was purchased by a company named Tracor, which was itself acquired by the British electronics company GEC in 1998. In 1999, GEC merged with British Aerospace to form BAE Systems.
Because the spraying went on years before BAE Systems existed, representatives for the company said they were unable to comment for this story. Representatives from Eglin Air Force did not provide any comments by press time.
In the end, most of the men would settle for some acknowledgment of what happened so many years ago.
“We just want people to know what we’ve been through,” Jody Mitchem said. “We want our story to be told.”
By Kelly Humphrey | 315-4443 | @Kellyhnwfdn | email@example.com | Posted Aug. 22, 2015 at 3:26 PM | Updated Aug 22, 2015 at 3:31 PM | Source: Northwest Florida Daily News