Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) is introducing legislation aimed at helping World War II veterans who were the subjects of secret military mustard gas experiments. She wants to require a swift review of previously denied benefits claims and lessen the prerequisites so applicants can receive benefits related to mustard gas exposure. McCaskill says since 2005, more than 90% of benefits claims involving such chemical warfare research have been denied.
She says about 4,000 World War II servicemen were exposed to the gas and about 200 of those are still alive. Of those 4,000 veterans, 40 are receiving benefits as a result of the experiments.
“It has been difficult for these veterans to reach the very high standards the VA set for them in terms of proving this,” said McCaskill. “It’s ironic to me that you would tell a veteran you can’t tell anyone about this for 50 years and then at the point in time that we would finally try to compensate them and care for them as a result of these experiments, you make it all their responsibility to be able to prove that it happened.”
McCaskill’s legislation would also mandate an investigation by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs about the benefits process in connection with mustard gas testing. She says the program has been “badly managed” and no one wants to take ownership of the way it has been handled.
She also said that records required to prove servicemen were involved in the experiments are hard to come by because the information was confidential and classified, or they were destroyed in a fire at a St. Louis military records site in the 1970s.
“Even the families of those who have died deserve to be told by the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense that ‘We believe you,’” said McCaskill.
McCaskill’s legislation, known as the Arla Harrell Act, is named after a serviceman who could be the last surviving Missourian that participated in these experiments. Harrell, 89, has repeatedly been denied benefits by the VA for exposure to mustard gas. He says he was a test subject at what used to be Camp Crowder, near the southwest Missouri town of Neosho.
McCaskill says officials have refused to recognize Camp Crowder as a site where such research was conducted, even though she says it had all the makings of one. During cleanup efforts at old military sites, reports by the Army Corps of Engineers included photographs of soldiers at Camp Crowder wearing gas masks and other suggestions to chemical warfare exercises there.
The affected veterans were sworn to secrecy about their participation for a half-century. The U.S. military did not fully acknowledge its role in the mustard gas or testing program until the last of the experiments was declassified in 1975. The military did not lift the oath of secrecy for the servicemen until the early 1990s.
Mustard gas is known to cause serious illnesses like skin cancer, leukemia, and chronic breathing problems.