Updated July 31, 2020 - 2:27 pm
WASHINGTON — Forty-five years ago, UPI photographer Hubert Van Es snapped the iconic picture of Air America pilots conducting a helicopter evacuation from a Saigon rooftop. It marked the end of the Vietnam War.
The event also signaled the end of Air America, a covert airline that served as a front for the CIA carrying supplies to Southeast Asia and performing rescue operations.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., filed a bill Friday to enhance pensions for about 390 former employees and 80 widows who never received full credit for serving their country during a war and conducting missions that claimed the lives of 286 people in the line of duty.
“The brave men and women employed by Air America who conducted covert operations during the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War were critical to U.S. efforts,” Rubio said in a statement.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a co-sponsor, said the bill would “provide long-overdue recognition and retirement benefits to the brave men and women who flew for Air America.”
It’s been a decadeslong fight to get the recognition, according to Maureen Ebersole of San Francisco, the daughter of the former general counsel of Air America and one of many volunteers lobbying Congress on behalf of the former airline workers.
Indeed. The cause was first taken up by former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 2007, who along with then-Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., filed legislation in the House and Senate. The bills foundered and died because of Office of Personnel Management regulations.
Other bills sponsored by Reid to change the regulations and backed by former Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, also failed.
Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has rewritten the legislation and has garnered large bipartisan support in the Senate, where he hopes the legislation can pass.
He said the heads of the CIA and the personnel management office conclude that enhancing the benefits to former Air America employees is now warranted.
His co-sponsors include both Nevada Democrats Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, as well as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Some of the former employees of Air America retired to Nevada and Las Vegas.
“The employees of Air America flew critical and dangerous missions in combat zones in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and it is long past time they receive the federal retirement benefits they deserve,” Cortez Masto said.
Cortez Masto said she would urge her colleagues to “quickly pass this important bill.”
“The contributions Air America members made in the Asia Pacific theater over several decades helped ensure the transportation of American equipment and personnel during times of combat,” Rosen said.
“Supporting these individuals who worked behind the scenes for the U.S. government is a small part of the debt of gratitude we owe our Air Americans,” she said.
For years the CIA denied involvement with Air America, even though it was a well-known secret that the airline was used for covert operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and for shuttling supplies to Southeast Asia.
The airline was used by the CIA from 1950 to 1976.
Since 2009, declassification of CIA documents shows Air America workers were employees of the federal government at the time of their service and are therefore entitled to federal retirement credit, Rubio said.
Although the cost of enhancing the civil service pension benefits was often raised as an obstacle, a recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office was about $40 million over 10 years.
In recent years, the Air America Association has held yearly reunions. It held a reunion in 2005 in Reno, although this year’s event in San Antonio was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, association members have remained steadfast in their efforts on Capitol Hill.
When Reid first took up the cause for enhanced benefits for the Air America workers there were an estimated 500 former employees. That number has now dropped to fewer than 400 people.