Here is part of what President Ronald Reagan wrote in a letter to the surviving members of Air America for their May 1987 reunion: "Unsung and unrecognized, each of you confronted danger and endured terrible hardships. … Free people everywhere owe you more than we can hope to repay."
President George W. Bush wrote the following to the group for its 2009 reunion: "The magnitude of Air America's service in Southeast Asia will never diminish, and the gratitude all Americans owe to those who took part in the countless important and dangerous missions should remain just as constant. … All Americans owe them a lasting debt of gratitude."
With such acknowledgements of respect from U.S. presidents, why has Air America been cast aside by the federal government? To this day, Air Americans, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, do not receive federal retirement benefits for their service, the major topic at their 2013 reunion that I attended here in the Big Easy.
Although Reagan and Bush praised Air Americans, they did not use the power of their office to actively seek benefits for these patriots. President Bill Clinton did nothing, and President Barack Obama, now in his second term, is doing nothing.
From 1950 to 1976, Air America was a federal corporation owned and operated by the CIA. It supported U.S. missions during the Cold War. Often under enemy fire and using outdated equipment without artillery, the organization flew cargo to countries such as Cambodia, Korea, Laos and Vietnam. While operating bases in these countries, it carried out covert and humanitarian missions in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Burma and China. It also transported, over many parts of Asia, U.S. diplomats, civilians, refugees, spies, sabotage teams, commandos, combat casualties, doctors and drug enforcement agents; personnel from USAID, the Defense Department and State Department; and VIPs such as President Richard Nixon.
Its most iconic image was captured in dramatic footage from Saigon on April 29, 1975, showing an Air America Huey helicopter lifting CIA operatives, military personnel and their families from an apartment building.
With such heroics and vital missions, why are Air Americans denied federal benefits? Many opponents of benefits claim the organization was nothing less than a pack of malcontents and mercenaries who got all they deserved.
But they are wrong.
A mercenary is a professional soldier hired for service in a foreign army, his sole motivation being money. Air Americans are veterans, not mercenaries. These are U.S. citizens motivated by patriotism and a passion for flying. Records show that 240 pilots and crew members were killed in action, most of them as a result enemy fire in the covert war in Laos. Some pilots are still missing in action.
A major reason they do not receive benefits is that the CIA owned and operated Air America and wanted to keep this fact secret to protect its cover story. Well, the secret has been out for years: Air America was part of the CIA. But the federal government still has not given the organization legal recognition.
For years, many Air Americans believed they were working for a civilian company and were paying into a private retirement plan that the company also paid into on their behalf. Upon retirement, the men would receive a lump sum. All of the payments were small, because the government never paid into the fund.
From the beginning, the pilots and crew members were misled by the CIA. The government should do the ethically right thing and redress this injustice. Legislation introduced in 2004 by two Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley, has dragged on because, ostensibly, the Congressional Budget Office has been "too busy" to estimate the costs of paying Air Americans benefits under the Civil Service Retirement System.
I am convinced that Congress and the intelligence community are waiting for the approximately 350 surviving members of Air America to die. The wait is not long: The average age of surviving members is 80.
We should be ashamed.