The Department of Veterans Affairs has rejected the vast majority of claims filed by veterans who were exposed to mustard gas as part of secret experiments during World War II, according to a report released Tuesday by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
About 60,000 military service members were used as human guinea pigs in a military research program to test protective equipment. Roughly 4,000 of them received high levels of full-body exposure to mustard gas or Lewisite, another toxic agent.
But the VA has rejected the claims of 85 percent of the veterans who applied for benefits related to the secret testing, according to the report.
From 2005 to 2015, the VA identified 1,213 disability claims related to mustard agent exposure from 792 World War II veterans. Of those claims, 1,028 were denied, the report found.
1,028 benefit claims filed by veterans involved in secret mustard gas tests were denied by VA
Only 40 veterans nationwide now are receiving the benefits, McCaskill said.
The Missouri Democrat, whose father was a World War II veteran, slammed the government’s failure to compensate and care for victims of the testing in a press call with reporters on Tuesday.
“It’s frankly beyond outrageous,” McCaskill said.
VA media relations director James Hutton said in an email that the agency is reviewing McCaskill’s report and “recognizes that disabilities may have resulted due to full body mustard gas exposure.” He said the VA has established presumptions of service connection for some disabilities that might have come about after the exposure.
McCaskill announced on Tuesday that she is filing legislation that would require the VA to review all denied claims and ease the burden of proof on veterans who suffered health problems after participating in the experiments.
Many veterans involved in the tests were sworn to secrecy and threatened with courts martial. The oath of secrecy remained in place until 1991.
The Arla Harrell Act is named for an 89-year-old man from Bevier, Mo., who McCaskill believes could be the last living victim of the tests in Missouri.
Harrell was a teenage Army recruit when, he says, he was hospitalized after being subjected to mustard gas tests at Camp Crowder in Neosho, Mo.
In the report, Harrell recalls a liquid chemical being rubbed on his skin and breathing a gas without a mask.
“Harrell’s commanding officers told him that he had been exposed so that he would know, as a field medic, how to treat servicemembers,” the report states.
Harrell has since suffered from multiple strokes, long-term lung problems, and skin cancer. His compensation claims have been rejected repeatedly by the VA since 1992 – most recently on April 21.
Hutton said the VA is reviewing Harrell’s case again at the direction of Secretary Robert McDonald, but Hutton would not comment on specifics, citing confidentiality.
McCaskill’s office drafted the bill in Harrell’s name after investigating his plight and that of other veterans featured in a series of reports on National Public Radio about the government’s failure to locate and aid victims of the mustard gas tests.
The way these servicemen have been treated for the last seven decades takes my breath away. It’s critical that we take immediate action to help the veterans whose government turned its back on them.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Like Harrell, many veterans involved in the tests were sworn to secrecy and threatened with courts martial. It wasn’t until 1975 that the experiments were declassified. The oath of secrecy remained in place until 1991.
“Because their healthcare professionals were not aware of the testing, these veterans suffered for the rest of their lives with the effects of the testing without adequate treatment,” the report found. “For many, this meant years of suffering – not only for them but their families – and frustration as they sought medical care from doctors who were in the dark about their true medical history.”
McCaskill said VA’s outreach efforts to veterans who participated in the experiments were “woefully inadequate.” The VA sent out only two mailers over several decades and relied on an inaccurate list of names and addresses, she said.
Veterans who did apply struggled to prove their claims, thwarted by the missing or incomplete documentation.
The VA and Department of Defense can’t even agree on the locations where the experiments took place, McCaskill said.
“It’s ironic to me that you could tell a veteran, ‘You can’t tell anyone about this for 50 years’ and then … you make it their responsibility to prove what happened to them,” McCaskill said.
Most veterans exposed to mustard agents during World War II have since died, but McCaskill’s office estimates that several hundred living veterans could still benefit from the Arla Harrell Act.
One thing the bill does not include is a formal demand for an apology from the U.S. government.
“I’m hoping we don’t have to legislate that,” McCaskill said. “I’m hoping an apology is forthcoming from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.”