Says Vietnam Contract Flyers Owed Federal Benefits
Like other pilots who flew throughout Southeast Asia in the
1950s and 1960s for companies like Air America, Civil Air
Transport, and Air Asia, Jack Stiles was actually flying for the
Central Intelligence Agency -- although he didn't know it at the
time. The CIA has long since owned up to the fact it operated those
airlines... and Stiles believes that means he, along with his
fellow pilots and ground workers, are entitled to government
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Stiles is part of a
group pressuring Congress to pass legislation granting retirement
benefits for pilots and other workers who served their country,
without their knowledge at the time.
Looking back with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there were
signs the private flying job Stiles applied for after returning
from Korea wasn't entirely on the up-and-up... but Stiles says he
didn't notice them. He didn't think it was odd the interviewer
already had his Navy service records, for example... and he didn't
question why he was soon flying US passengers and cargo over
Vietnam, in American planes but with French markings.
"All I knew was it was a flying job," Stiles said, adding the
true nature of his mission became clearer when he and other Civil
Air Transport pilots "began flying in Laos, making air drops to
While it's no secret today the CIA operated the airlines Stiles
and others worked for, the clandestine agency does not officially
recognize their contributions when it comes to paying out benefits.
A previous attempt to change that was shot down in appeals court,
and a current bill aimed at changing the system is stuck in
Supporters of the proposed legislation say time is running out
for Stiles and other pilots.
"If the government waits long enough, they won't have to pay us
because we'll all be dead," Stiles told the Atlanta newspaper.
"If it doesn't happen this year, it's not going to happen,"
added former Air America attorney William Merrigan, who now works
as an Army attorney in Washington.
Merrigan says there are some signs of hope for Stiles and
others, however. Nevada Senator Harry Reid has sponsored a bill to
bring workers for Air America and other such airlines under the
federal umbrella. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-NV) -- whose
district includes a large number of former Air America pilots --
has offered a similar bill in the House of Representatives.
"The employees of Air America risked life and limb for our
nation, and they should be recognized for the role they played in
our military efforts in East Asia," Berkley said.
Stiles says it didn't matter to him at the time who he was
flying for... and in fact, many pilots considered themselves a
vital part of US efforts to thwart the spread of communism
throughout the world.
But at the time, it did not matter to him, or to most of the
other pilots. They saw themselves as part of the effort to stem the
advance of communism in Southeast Asia.
"I've always been a patriot," Stiles said. "If you don't pay me
anything, that's fine. I believe in what I'm doing."
In was that esprit de corps that kept Stiles and others from
seeking out benefits until the 1980s. When those pilots did ask for
retirement pay and other benefits, they learned the Office of
Personnel Management had changed its regulations, barring contract
workers from claiming federal benefits.
Current efforts to change the rule are opposed by the CIA, and
"Granting retroactive retirement benefits to former Air America
employees would undermine principles of fairness and consistency
and could prompt countless requests from other individuals who have
served the Government in similar capacities. Such requests could
compromise Agency activities and carry a significant cost burden,"
the CIA wrote Senator Reid in 2005.
Merrigan counters it would only cost the government around $25
million, at most, to provide benefits for the roughly 500 workers
remaining, and surviving widows. "A lot of the people who will get
the money will be the widows of these people who made an awful lot
of sacrifices. Many of them are living only on Social Security,"
Stiles says it isn't about the money, but rather the principle
of the government caring for its own.
"I think it's justified," he said. "I think it's way