When Phillip Moon joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1970, he was a super-fit 17-year-old keen to follow in the footsteps of his father who served with the navy in Korea.
He wanted to defend his country, make some mates, see the world. He never imagined the air force would make his life a living hell.
Moon spent most of his career as a storeman and packer at the RAAF base in Amberley, 50km west of Brisbane, home to Australia’s fleet of F-111 strategic bombers.
During his time at Amberley he came in contact with more than 200 different chemical products, was doused almost daily in aviation fuel and supervised the burn-off of old drums of SR51 – a notoriously corrosive sealant – without gloves or other safety equipment. The stench of the burnt-off fumes was so strong it made many men vomit and gave them piercing migraines.
Today Moon, 56, suffers 30 serious health problems including asthma, diabetes and breathing difficulties. His liver is twice the size it should be. He has no sense of taste or smell, experiences anxiety attacks and stutters when stressed.
“I suffer short-term and long-term memory loss,” he says. “I can’t remember my childhood, just one or two little things. I can barely remember joining the air force.”
When prime minister Robert Menzies ordered 24 F-111s in 1963, Australians were told the bombers would revolutionise the nation’s defence capabilities. But today hundreds of F-111 workers and their families are suffering from cancer, leukemia and severe mental-health problems caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. Others have already died, some by committing suicide.
Many of those still alive have not received a cent in compensation. They say the F-111’s toxic legacy should be a national scandal.
Unlike in most other aircraft, the fuel tanks in the F-111 bomber did not contain internal bladders. This meant workers had to work inside the fuel tanks, stripping and resealing them with chemical sealants to prevent leaks. About 1300 people – including 100 civilians – were involved in the deseal/reseal program at Amberley between 1977 and 2000.
The chemicals they were exposed to included benzene, a known cause of leukemia and hematological cancer; chromium VI, known to cause pulmonary, lung and gastrointestinal cancer; and carbon black, which has been linked to lung and oesophagus cancer.
Former maintenance worker Barry Willis, 64, worked shifts of up to 11 hours inside the cramped tanks dressed only in his shirt, shorts and boots. At times the heat was unbearable; sometimes it was near freezing.
He says workplace health and safety was non-existent: open cans of chemical sealant were stored in the refrigerators where the men kept their lunch.
“I used to be so bad my skin would excrete a yellow substance all over my body into the white pillow sheets,” he says. “My wife couldn’t get the stains out of them.
“I’ve had skin irritation for 20 years. I still have headaches. I’ve had breathing difficulties. I had sexual problems; my testicles swelled up so big they looked like footballs. I’ve had growths all the way up my body: my toes, legs, crotch, underneath my arms.”
When he complained about his symptoms to the RAAF, Willis says he was sent to “quacks” who knew less about chemicals than he did. Others were sent to psychiatrists, psychologists or just told to go away.
Willis says he knows at least 35 former F-111 maintenance workers who have died in recent years, most from cancer or suicide.
After numerous complaints of memory loss, fatigue and skin problems, the deseal/reseal program was suspended in January 2000 and the Howard government launched a board of inquiry which criticised the RAAF for failing to take the workers’ health complaints seriously.
“If anybody is to be held accountable,” the inquiry said, “it is the air force itself.”
A rigorous four-year study of health outcomes, commissioned by the Australian Defence Force and undertaken by the University of Newcastle, found a 50 per cent increase in cancer among men who worked on the F-111 deseal/reseal program.
“The increase in cancer was a very strong result,” says John Attia, co-author of the Study of Health Outcomes in Aircraft Personnel. “That was the thing that really struck us.”
The study also found an almost two-fold increase in depression and anxiety, a 2.5-fold increase in sexual dysfunction and a two-fold increase in obstructive lung disease.
In response to the study, the Howard government announced a $21 million compensation package _ including one-off payments of up to $40,000. The payments were described by maintenance workers as woefully inadequate. Many said $40,000 wouldn’t cover their medical bills. Hundreds of RAAF workers and their families say they have been cheated out of restitution.
“I have not received any personal compensation from the government,” Willis says. “The Howard government did not accept compensation claimants unless they had deseal/reseal stamped into their personal records booklet.”
Moon, who also hasn’t received compensation, thinks it is “scandalous” that welders, general hands and storemen who worked at Amberley have been told they were not involved in the deseal/reseal process.
“How do they think they got the drums on to the planes?” he says.
Carolyne and Ross Olsen have been suing the commonwealth for six years. Ross worked on the deseal/reseal program from 1979 to 1981 and today suffers neuropathy – damage to the peripheral nervous system – rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. He has lost all feeling below his mouth and has been taking chemotherapy drugs for 11 years to stop his body attacking itself.
“He’s got major problems with his short and long-term memory. Friends used to call him the walking dictionary because there wasn’t a work he didn’t know. Now he can’t even read a book,” Carolyne says. “The amount of stress it’s put on me has been horrendous. I’ve had to have counselling.”
After years of stalling, the Olsens were eventually offered $117,000 in compensation. This was cut to $87,000 when it was discovered Ross was on a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pension. The Olsens were then told they would have to pay $208 a week. “That’s not compensation, it’s an insult,” Carolyne says.
But after years of suffering, F-111 workers and their families finally have cause for optimism. The Rudd Government has launched a parliamentary inquiry into the deseal/reseal program, delivering on an election commitment made by Alan Griffin, now Veterans Affairs Minister.
The parliamentary inquiry, chaired by Arch Bevis, has received 84 submissions from affected servicemen and defence organisations. The inquiry begins public hearings today in Canberra and will move to Brisbane next week.
“It provides an opportunity for the issue to be aired publicly and dealt with properly,” Griffin says. “I hope it provides closure for some people.”
But he warns that increased compensation cannot be guaranteed, even if recommended by the inquiry.
“Parliamentary inquiries can have a mind of their own,” he says. “We want to see what the recommendations are before we commit to implementing them.”
Bronwyn Bishop, Opposition spokeswoman on veterans’ affairs, tells The Australian that the parliamentary inquiry has bipartisan support.
“I think having this inquiry is a step in the right direction. I just hope it’s a fair dinkum inquiry looking for real answers, not just more rhetoric from the Government. This Government has a history of holding inquiry after inquiry.”
Ian Fraser, from the 340-strong desealers support group, says: “We want to see fair and reasonable compensation. So many people have received nothing while some have had quite good payouts. What I’m hoping for is a holistic response to the issue, not people being assessed on a case-by-case basis.”
Liz Agerbeek, founder of the F-111 spouse support group, says: “We’ve got our hopes up that we’ll see justice. This is a tragedy, the biggest industrial tragedy in military history. And it’s a moral issue: we believe we’ve been treated badly.”
She wants the Government to provide all F-111 workers with repatriation health cards and to commission a study into the health impacts on their wives and children, whom she says have suffered as much as the men.
“We were all impregnated with contaminated semen so we have these very rare cancers,” says Agerbeek, whose husband Rudi worked on the deseal/reseal program from 1976-79.
She knows some spouses whose children have been born with extra limbs.
“I have had cancer of the vulva. Others have lost bowels and bladders and their baby-making machinery. We’ve all had menopauses from hell. We also suffer from the same things as the men: depression, mood swings and skin problems.”
The 62-year-old says her marriage almost fell apart.
“I have three children with strange medical problems,” she says. Her eldest son has a motor-neurone condition similar to Asperger’s. Her daughter was born with partial retinas. Her youngest son has had serious heart problems since the age of eight.
“The kids have been so badly psychologically damaged by this,” she says. “I think about all those poor little kids with parents who are mentally stressed, financially stressed, and I shudder for their future.”
After finishing his day’s work at Amberley, Moon would hand wife Glenda his filthy, fuel-soaked clothes to put in the washing machine. “But the chemicals just stuck to the bowl,” he says. “All our clothes became contaminated.”
Soon, Glenda was covered in rashes and haemorrhaging so badly that, like many spouses, she needed a hysterectomy.
Today the Moons rarely leave their two-bedroom home in Bundaberg, Queensland. Phillip needs a walker to get around; Glenda’s psoriasis is so bad that driving the car makes her hands bleed. Some days they cry about the children they never had.
Phillip says a compensation payout under $5 million for those worst affected by chemical exposure would be insulting.
“We want to restart our lives,” he says. “We’re not living, we’re just existing.”
The defence sub-committee of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade is due to deliver its report on October 23.
NOTE: This story was published in The Australian newspaper on 21 July 2008. It was awarded the 2008 “Gold Ossie” for best story by an Australian Journalism Student in any medium by the Journalism Education Association. An online version of this story, with audio and images, be viewed here.