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Cassidy: Air America personnel deserve U.S. Veteran status

[From my prepared speech delivered to the U.S. Senate for granting veteran status to members of Air America.]

Mr. President,

I rise today to highlight Air America and its role in military conflicts from the 1940s through the Cold War. Air America, which was previously known as Civil Air Transport, operated under a shroud of mystery, intrigue and – at times – purposeful deceit to allow the organization to continue covert operations.

Its members lived the motto “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime – Professionally,” which garnered respect as a cargo and charter airline during the Secret War in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. As the war progressed, the U.S. government increasingly relied on Air America pilots to conduct search and rescue missions of downed U.S. military pilots, often in heavy combat areas with no weapons of their own. The daily risks they took to save others earned them the reputation as “the most shot at airline.”

While speaking at an Air America plaque dedication in Dallas, President Ronald Reagan said, “Although free people everywhere owe you more than we can hope to repay, our greatest debt is to your companions who gave their last full measure of devotion.”

While President Reagan recognized the contributions that these pilots made to the United States, Air America has received mixed support throughout its history. The Department of Defense and the CIA, among others, have argued that Air America pilots are not veterans, saying their heroic rescues of American soldiers were not part of their contracts or within the scope of their mission.

These sentiments have kept Air America pilots from receiving veteran status and the benefits that come with that status. This needs to change. Evidence in declassified materials shows these pilots are deserving of such recognition for their exploits abroad.

Who were these dedicated Americans serving in Air America? Most crews had military training. Many bore the scars of fighting on the ground in Korea and Vietnam. They were former POWs and Special Forces. All of them were tough as nails.

They were also crop dusters and water bombers who fought forest fires. They were smoke jumpers and flight mechanics. Thousands of personnel were indigenous people, both male and female. Air America members came from all walks of life to answer the call to serve.

Military aircraft were provided to employees to conduct combat-related activity in areas where the U.S. Armed Forces could not go, due to treaties. They served at considerable risk; numerous employees died or were seriously injured.

However, their sacrifices were not given the same recognition as military members. Lowell Pirkle was killed when an RPG hit his helicopter and it burned to the ground. Sadly, it took years for his remains to be repatriated and sent to Honolulu. When Lowell’s wife, Deborah, insisted that he be buried in Arlington Cemetery she was informed that Lowell was ineligible because he

died not in the military, but as part of Air America. He would eventually be buried in Arlington due to his previous military service – though the work in both engagements was essentially the same.

Declassified documents show that the United States government owned Air America, and therefore, its members should be treated as veterans for their service.

In August 1965, Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote, “Political factors require that Air America helicopters continue to assume responsibility for search-and-rescue operations in Laos.”

A year prior, Ambassador to Laos Leonard Unger said, “Search-and-rescue is a crucial factor in maintaining the morale of pilots, and there is no prospect at this juncture of establishing effective search-and-rescue procedures without the use of both civilian Air America and U.S. military personnel.”

The stories go on, but I’ll add one more. CIA Assistant General Counsel James Harris wrote to the Civil Service Commission, “In the case of Air America, it would be virtually impossible to preserve the cover story had all the corporate employees been advised they were really employees of the United States Government.”

It’s time for the US government to set the record straight about Air America. Their service is commended by all who served with them, especially by those service members whose lives were saved by Air America. We owe them more than a debt of gratitude. I urge my colleagues to consider the story of these brave pilots and work toward providing the recognition they deserve as federal employees, including granting veteran status and the associated benefits they earned.

Bill Cassidy, M.D.is the senior United States Senator from the State of Louisiana. He is a member of the Republican Party and has served as Senator since 2015. He can be reached through the Senate switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or by visiting his websitehttps://www.cassidy.senate.gov/.