May 08, 2007

Pilot seeks long-delayed recognition

Federal benefits denied those who flew for CIA's clandestine airlines

Jack Stiles of Sharpsburg spent nearly 20 years as a government pilot and didn't know it.

Stiles was one of several hundred pilots who flew for the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine airlines in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and '60s. Many of the pilots now say they thought they were working for private companies — Air America, Civil Air Transport and Air Asia — under contract to the U.S. government. Only years later did many of them learn they were actually working for the CIA.

The CIA has long acknowledged that it owned and managed those airlines.

But it still does not recognize the service of the pilots and ground crews — 240 of whom were killed in what those surviving now consider the line of duty — when it comes to paying retirement benefits because of an obscure federal policy and an appeals court decision upholding it.

But as those men age, they want the recognition for what they did and the benefits they believe they earned.

Stiles is part of an effort to persuade Congress to pass legislation that would grant government benefits for the years those pilots and ground crew members served. While that legislation has been introduced, it has languished in committee and attracted few co-sponsors.

Stiles and others are beginning to think it will not happen in their lifetime.

"If the government waits long enough, they won't have to pay us because we'll all be dead," Stiles said in a recent interview at his Sharpsburg home.

"If it doesn't happen this year, it's not going to happen," said William Merrigan, who served as an Air America attorney from 1962 to 1974 and is tracking the legislation.

But there is hope because of the legislation's supporters, added Merrigan, now a Department of the Army attorney in Washington.

Among them is Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, who has sponsored a bill to bring former employees of Air America — the largest of the proprietary airlines — and those who worked for other such airlines under the federal umbrella.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) has offered legislation on the House side and is a strong proponent of the measure because of the number of former Air America workers who live in her district, said David Cherry, a spokesman for her office.

"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 when she introduced the bill.

Stiles said he does not consider his service with Civil Air Transport or Air America to be particularly heroic, although he was often shot at in Laos and flew covert missions to Tibet with only the moonlight to guide him through the Himalayas.

A Navy pilot who flew 70 combat missions in the Korean War, Stiles had returned to his hometown of Louisville, Ky., after the war and was about to take a job in a paint store when he saw an advertisement seeking pilots to fly in Southeast Asia.

"It was absolutely vague. All I knew was it was a flying job," Stiles said.

It did not strike Stiles as odd at the time that his interviewer with Civil Air Transport had all his Navy flying records. Or that he later flew cargo and passengers in U.S. aircraft with French markings in Vietnam in the 1950s.

Stiles said he began to question just whom he was working for when Civil Air Transport pilots "began flying in Laos, making air drops to indigenous forces."

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."

"I'd do it again, with or without the civil service," said Boyd Mesecher, 74, of Hollywood, Fla., president of the Air American Association. Mesecher was an aviation engineer for the company for 15 years, much of it in Vietnam.

Because of the secrecy of their jobs and their missions, Air America employees say they were reluctant to speak out and seek their benefits until the early 1980s.

When they did, they learned that the federal Office of Personnel Management had changed its regulations so that contract employees such as those in Air America were not considered federal employees. A federal court challenge to the regulation was rejected, leaving legislation as the only remedy.

The OPM and CIA have written to Reid opposing his bill.

"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 Reid in an October 2005 letter.

But Merrigan said the former employees of proprietary airlines and surviving widows, just over 500 now, would cost the government about $20 million to $25 million over the life of payouts.

"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," Merrigan said.

For Stiles, who has become a missionary and frequently travels to Africa for Source of Light Ministries International out of Madison, the issue is one not of money, but of principle.

"I think it's justified," he said. "I think it's way overdue."

By Ron Martz. Contact:

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