Interview: True Matilda
Politics: State of Play
Industrial: Capital Dilemmas
Unions: Rhodes Scholars
National Focus: Rennovating the Lodge
International: People Power
Economics: A Bit Rich
History: Mine Shafts
Safety: Sick Of Fighting
Organising: Building a Wave
Poetry: Anger In The Bush(es)
Review: The Battle Of Algiers
Culture: The Word On The Street
The Locker Room
Co-operating At All Costs
All Good Except You
Sick Of Fighting
When Rudi Agerbeek was doing maintenance work on F111 aircraft in the mid 70's he passed blood, slept for entire weekends and was beset with blinding migraines - but he never thought it was due to his job.
Even after drastically losing weight and collapsing into a coma did he, or his wife Liz, twig in was due to his years snaking around the ribs and cross members of cramped fuel tanks soaked in a toxic cocktail of poisons.
"I knew de-sealers stank from working in chemicals like SR51 - they were banned from the mess because of their stench and Liz was always forcing me to take my umpteenth shower for the day because of the foul reek," says Agerbeek, "But I had no clue I was in danger."
Even when Liz and each of his three children fell ill with unusual illnesses in the 1980's did he think of his years of exposure to carcinogenic organic solvents - protected only by his blue singlet and pair of stubbies.
It was only in 2001, when wife Liz heard a radio report on the plight of de-seal workers did he let the idea rattle around in his head.
But surely the RAAF wouldn't have exposed him to dangerous working conditions? Exposing servicemen to Agent Orange had been a simple mistake hadn't it? Wouldn't his union have made sure he was safe?
He now realised his litany of current health complaints - loss of feeling in his face, mood swings, memory loss, and claustrophobia - were due to his work decades before in the upkeep of Australia's most valuable aircraft.
By now, he and wife Liz were living in their dream home, a glass pole house they'd built in the branches of a magnificent stand of pecan trees in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
But as they met other sick veterans they learnt the loss of feeling Rudi was getting in his face, or peripheral neuropathy, could eventually confine him to a wheelchair.
The dream house would have to go. Along with making life changes like moving house Rudi joined other sick maintenance engineers who did de-seal work over the last 30 years in their fight for full compensation.
Many of his former colleagues from Queensland's Amberley Air Force were very sick - suffering from cancers, respiratory decay, neurological problems, impotency and cardio-vascular disease. Some of these men are in their thirties and forties.
But despite the de-seal/reseal program being stopped in 1999 by an outspoken RAAF doctor, the government has not awarded the full compensation many need to make their lives more comfortable.
A large number have lost homes as well as their ability to work. And many have had their personal relationships destroyed due to the mood swings and neurological problems which is a typical complaint of the de-seal community.
The government refuses to compensate the victims even after a 2004 report by Dr John Attia from Newcastle University found the workers are 50 per cent more likely to develop cancer that other Australians.
Attia says the combination of organic solvents, cramped working space, lack of protective equipment and hot temperatures may have led to the high rate of cancer.
Another study on other health complaints of F111 de-sealers was handed to the chief of the Air Force last month and is expected to be released publicly later this year.
Meanwhile Rudi is optimistic about his future, and has begun using herbal treatments from Tibet. And his health has markedly improved.
But while he as taken charge of his own treatment he knows he is one of the lucky ones. "You see it from Agent Orange to James Hardie, people do a job which makes them sick and suddenly no-one wants to know them," says Agerbeek, "they all deserve full compensation.
"I am just so lucky to have Liz and to have confronted my illnesses positively and proactively, in the end that's all you can do."
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