Reservists who used the big aircraft that had sprayed Agent Orange during the Vietnam War never left the country, but for years they complained of strange odors and nausea -- and, later, major illnesses.
"We were told the C-123s had been cleaned and we shouldn't be exposed," said Sandi Sharp-Hayes, 64, of Central Islip, a former Air Force Reserve sergeant who logged about 250 hours aboard airplanes possibly contaminated with the chemical herbicide.
"There were a lot of people who were becoming ill who you wouldn't expect to become ill," Sharp-Hayes said.
Thursday, ending years of resistance, the federal government agreed to provide disability benefits to as many as 2,100 Air Force personnel and reservists exposed to Agent Orange.
The new rule, approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget, takes effect Friday. It adds to an Agent Orange-related caseload that already makes up 1 out of 6 disability checks issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The expected cost over 10 years is $47.5 million, with separate health care coverage adding to the price tag.
"Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do," VA Secretary Bob McDonald said in a statement.
His office held a series of private meetings with veterans organizations and lawmakers Thursday to discuss ways to expedite the delivery of benefits, including to surviving spouses.
The rule covers an expanded group of military personnel who flew or worked on Fairchild C-123 aircraft in the United States from 1969 to 1986 and were believed to have been exposed to Agent Orange residue.
The planes had been used to spray more than 19 million gallons of various herbicides during the Vietnam War -- most of it Agent Orange -- to destroy forests that hid enemy fighters. The planes found postwar use among Reserve units.
Veterans who can show they worked on a contaminated plane and later developed any of 14 medical conditions determined by the VA to be linked to Agent Orange, such as prostate cancer, diabetes and leukemia, are now eligible for disability aid, including survivor benefits and medical care.
Sharp-Hayes served as a medic aboard C-123s out of Westover Air Reserve Base outside Chicopee, Massachusetts, between 1974 and 1982. She said she later endured various maladies -- including thyroid and stomach cancers -- and six miscarriages.
Now, while her Agent Orange exposure makes her eligible for benefits, she said she isn't certain her particular health issues will be covered.
"I'm glad that they finally did it, but I am very sad that it took 40 years," said Sharp-Hayes, adding that the VA still hasn't adequately addressed the effects of Agent Orange exposure on women. With AP