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Hundreds of Americans who worked in secrecy for the CIA during the Vietnam War are asking for help from the government they once served.
Employees of a covert airline called Air America flew thousands of dangerous missions in support of the war effort. Many of them live in Southern Nevada and are hoping that a bill making its way through Congress will close a loophole and give them their due.
As early as 1950, the U.S. government began its involvement in the quagmire to be in Southeast Asia but didn't want to leave any fingerprints. The Central Intelligence Agency bought the civilian airline called Civil Air Transport, later changing the name to Air America, and hired former military mechanics, crew members and pilots to fly for them.
Michael Kandt said, "And at the time, when we were there, we didn't care who we were working for CIA, USA. We were there to do a job and work."
Many of those workers didn't know their paychecks were from the CIA. Valley residents Ward Reimer and Michael Kandt worked for Air America for decades.
They worked on planes that transported friendly forces and supplies into battle zones in Laos, Cambodia, Korea and other parts of Southeast Asia during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
"We were there rather than the military being there," Michael Kandt added. "And later on, there was a time when the Air America was really the only aviation assets in Laos."
Many were drawn by the exotic locale, but the mission was no sightseeing trip. Reimer serviced the planes, the ones that made it back, that is.
"About 70-percent of the time they would have bullet holes in them. Some were still flying in the U.S. with the same bullet holes left in them," Ward Reimer. "When I went into Cambodia and that was, talk about scary situations, Cambodia was scary, I mean those people will cut your head off for nothing, you know."
"We lost 267 people total," Michael Kandt said.
While they were putting their own lives on the line, they were also saving lives rescuing downed military pilots.
Kandt continued, "Early on, when the Navy, Marine Corp., anybody that was flying aircraft in North Vietnam and in Laos, when those guys got shot down, it was Air America that picked them up because the Air Force did not have the capability, the resources there to do that."
Movies like Mel Gibson's Air America have painted an unflattering picture of Air America, portraying the employees as hard partiers, even drug runners.
"The accusation that the CIA was actually moving drugs is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous," Michael Kandt said.
After decades of dangerous missions, Air America workers who tried to apply for government pensions and benefits were told they were never employees of the U.S. government and weren't entitled to them. Their contracts had been rewritten without notice.
The reason: the CIA changed the contracts they signed without telling the workers and they weren't recognized as working for the government.
"Nobody knew this, I didn't know this until about two weeks ago, when I talked to the former director of personnel. He said, hell, they blew all them contracts out the door," Ward Reimer said. "But some of them were paid as little as $2.36. They were paid nothing."
Now, Ward Reimer and Michael Kandt are working to get those benefits to surviving Air America employees and their widows and families.
Kandt said, "We do know people who these benefits would make a considerable, help these people out."
Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley says they were working for the government and should be getting the same benefits other government workers are. Berkley helped push through legislation to get those workers benefits.
"They performed a very heroic service for our government without even knowing that they were doing it. Now that we know, let's make it right by them," Berkley stated.
Reimer concluded, "Well, my position with this thing is that this is probably the last shot right now. I mean, where are we going to go from this point?"
Both houses of Congress have passed versions of the Defense Intelligence Bill that includes a provision that would give Air America workers benefits. Now, the workers are waiting for a decision from Homeland Security on whether they should get them.
In the meantime, a congressional committee will work out the difference between the House and Senate bills before coming up with a final draft.