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Air America Veteran Status Update


The following appeared in the Air Force Magazine Daily Report. 

Ex-Air America Pilots May Get Help: Congressional defense overseers want the Director of National Intelligence to assess the advisability of extending federal retirement benefits to members of Air America-the CIA-run covert air force that gained notoriety for its role during the Vietnam War-who served prior to 1977. In the conference version of the Fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill that was finalized on Oct. 7, the lawmakers called on the DNI (in Sec. 1057) to submit a report to Congress with his findings no later than 180 days after the authorization bill becomes law. They tasked him to compare what those employees were promised with what they have actually received, and whether they would be better off if they were deemed to have been employed by the US government. The House approved the defense policy bill on Oct. 8; the Senate has not voted in it yet.

Submitted by Steve Stevens 10/13/2009


The original application seeking veteran status for CAT/Air America personnel was filed with the Civilian/Military Service Review Board on July 4, 2003. Although the claim was disapproved in 2005 by a three to one margin, the C/MSRB strongly suggested a reconsideration application be filed on the basis support for the application may exist within two books recently brought to their attention.

I agreed to file a reconsideration request and they provided valuable assistance with nineteen pages of notes taken during the deliberation phase of the original application. The notes from the C/MSRB presented a devil’s advocate and a sharper image for what was required as evidence to support our claim. Clearly a presentation narrower in focus than originally submitted was in order. Accordingly, and keeping within the suggested guidelines, the reconsideration application defined activities of CAT/Air America by theaters of operation and along time lines.

A pattern began to emerge as work progressed on the application that revealed more clearly the complicated network comprising CAT/Air America. It became obvious there were issues extending beyond the simple explanation given about CIA ownership of the operation. While the CIA connection was intended to explain everything, it really never explained anything at all but in fact clouded reality. Many hours of research revealed CAT/Air America not as a CIA front company but rather a legitimate U.S. corporation set up by the CIA, permission for which was granted by the State Department within specific guidelines. It was further revealed the CIA did not have enough work to keep the asset afloat and encouraged outside contracts. Certain activities that took place under selected contracts potentially met the requirements for veteran status eligibility.

The unique arrangement with the CIA did not mean that CAT/Air America was a commercial enterprise since most of the contracts were actually made with the U.S. government and essentially profitless. In reality, since the U.S. government owned the asset, it contracted with itself and paid itself. Assets were co-mingled and jurisdiction was sometimes obscured, but for the most part, during the contracted period, the CIA did not control the asset. Instead, the actual contractor had effective control, though conducted directly through CAT/Air America leadership. The contracts were with USAID, US Army, US Air Force and the French Republic for the most part, but it was the US military contracts where veteran status can be claimed. This may explain why the current CIA has been reticent with assistance since they may not be cognizant of the exact relationship between CAT/Air America and the contractor, and any work conducted for the CIA would not normally qualify for veteran status eligibility.

The C/MSRB made it clear that veteran status would not be granted simply for paramilitary activity regardless of the hazard and valor of the participants. Equally clear was an insistence the application needed to prove CAT/Air America supported United States military personnel - not French, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai, Lao, Hmong or any other country’s military troops. Support evidence had to include proof the United States military asked for the support and they had control over the asset during the time support was being provided. In other words, Good Samaritan activity, while applauded, was not sufficient unless it could be shown the activity was contracted and the contractor had authority over the asset.

The task of deciding which activities qualify for veteran status is made doubly difficult by the fact CAT/Air America missions were clandestine in nature and shrouded in secrecy. It is also the C/MSRB’s position that evidence of the U.S. military supporting CAT/Air America when a quid pro quo could not be established would not qualify. Therefore, the US military furnishing us with their aircraft, maintenance and fuel and flying from a U.S. military airfield would not qualify unless those specific flights were in direct support of the U.S. military. I personally disagree with this position because I feel we all supported each other for a common cause and cherry picking combat related individual flights is priggish and may deprive legitimate eligibility.

The following distinctions result from C/MSRB’s interpretation and requirements. Flights to Indonesia with B-26 aircraft, flights to Dien Bien Phu with C-119 aircraft, flights to Tibet with C-130 aircraft and flights in Vietnam for USAID in bailed US military aircraft will be difficult to get approved. Accordingly, the reconsideration application was broken down to include Korea for Operation Book Lift, Laos 1959-1962 for Operation Hot Foot and White Star, Laos 1964-1974 for the Steve Canyon (Raven) program, Lima Site 85, designated SAR support from 1964 through 1974, the high altitude radio relay program and the photo recon work. I sincerely believe a plausible argument was made for these specific operations that accurately show requested direct support to the US military during a wartime situation.

Initially I thought Vietnam would be the easiest to claim, because so much secrecy surrounded Laos, yet it has proven to be the most difficult. Anecdotal evidence in copious amounts that included letters from U.S. military supporters was included, but in the eyes of the C/MSRB this evidence does not provide jurisdiction, which is the heart and soul of the issue.

The reconsideration application was submitted in the winter of 2006. An Air Force historian, who was extremely critical, first reviewed it. His remarks were sent back to me for rebuttal and sent back to the historian for his re-rebuttal. The final reconsideration with all its comments and cross comments was presented to the C/MSRB on August 2, 2006. The Board had a question about SAR activity that was asked of the historian and his remarks were sent to me for rebuttal. My rebuttal included Dr. Joe Leeker’s documentaries that were sent to the C/MSRB in November. I ran across additional information to further support the Dien Bien Phu operation and submitted it to the C/MSRB in December hoping also to stir the pot and get a response.

My letter was returned along with an explanation the C/MSRB had reviewed all documents and rendered a decision. It was now up to the executive secretary to write the notes concerning the decision and present it to the Secretary of the Air Force. The C/MSRB will not reveal their decision until the Secretary approves or disapproves.

I have called the executive secretary every month and been told that the workload, which includes parole and clemency, has been so extensive that the notes still have not been prepared. In early March I sent a formal request to please provide something to us in time for the last Log prior to the reunion, which had a deadline of March 22nd. The deadline has come and passed and so far I’ve heard nothing.

I could speculate and consider the C/MSRB is split on one or more, or all of the various operations, and I could be completely wrong. Should no portion of CAT/Air America be declared eligible then who would qualify? I’ve been told not a single entity has been approved for the Korea/Vietnam era. If true, then why did Congress pass this law and why were we encouraged to seek eligibility if failure was the intent all along? It is frustrating for me to report to you that I do not have a clue as to what the C/MSRB has decided. I appreciate the fact that government operates slower than other entities, but it would seem to me we deserve a yes or no answer in a timelier manner. At this point, I hope that I will be able to have an answer for all of you at the General Membership meeting.

Allen Cates

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