11/18/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
The U.S. government sometimes fails to take care of its own, especially when its activities involve secrecy. The fate of Air America’s pilots and crews is one of the most notable examples of the government reneging on its responsibility.
To this day, the surviving airmen of Air America do not enjoy any of the benefits given to other U.S. military veterans and their families.
Who can forget the dramatic footage from South Vietnam on April 29, 1975, showing U.S. pilots and their crews evacuating 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon? These scenes recorded the inglorious end of America’s long and deadly misadventure in Vietnam.
While we watched the crews maneuver helicopters onto the embassy’s roof and into the courtyard and side streets and lift their human cargo to safety, most of us gave little thought to who these brave airmen were. Indeed, the public will never know the identities of some of them because they worked for Air America, a CIA-owned-and-operated air service.
During the 30-plus years of the Cold War, Air America, with government approval, supported military and intelligence personnel in Asia. Established in 1950, Air America operated until 1976, the year after the United States officially left Vietnam. With its slogan of “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally,” Air America flew various cargo to, among other countries, Cambodia, the Kingdom of Laos and the Republic of Vietnam. And while operating bases in these countries, it carried out covert and humanitarian missions in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Burma and the People’s Republic of China.
What most Americans know about Air America comes from urban legend and from the B-grade 1990 film Air America, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. In the movie, the Gibson and Downey play renegade pilots caught up in the insanity of top-secret shenanigans over Laos during the Vietnam conflict. A trailer for the film reflects the questionable portrayals of the outfit: “They lead the crew of Air America, a not-so-secret airline that drops everything from live pigs to opium over villages throughout the Vietnam countryside.”
In reality, Air America transported diplomats, civilians, refugees, spies, sabotage teams, commandos, combat casualties, doctors, drug enforcement agents and, of course, VIPs, such as President Richard Nixon, over many parts of Asia.
Flying for Air America was some of the most dangerous duty of the Cold War era. In overloaded planes, pilots had to negotiate poorly mapped mountain zones and bad weather, and they regularly flew without radio beacons.
Even now, many veterans say they are alive because Air America pilots rescued them from enemy hands or delivered them to hospitals.
From his office in Alexandria, Va., William Merrigan, who served as legal counsel for Air America from 1962 to 1975, and who is now a Department of the Army attorney, told me that 86 Air America personnel were killed in action, starting with flights over China, Korea and throughout the Vietnam conflict.
At 72, Merrigan continues to work with legislators, such as Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, Pentagon officials and members of the Government Accountability Office in an effort to get civil service benefits for Air America veterans.
“The injustice is apparent,” he said. “Many of them died over there, and they deserve recognition that they haven’t really received.”
Thus far, Merrigan said, the courts have determined that Air America personnel are not federal employees because they cannot prove they were “appointed” into the civil service. The reason, of course, is the CIA’s old desire to keep the operations secret.
Merrigan and others say that about 350 Air America veterans are alive. Their average age is 75. Currently, a proposal to secure such benefits is part of the Defense Department Appropriations bill. Merrigan said he is trying to get GOP Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska to help line up other Republicans behind the bill.
Time is running out for Air America veterans, along with their dependents, to get the civil service benefits they deserve.