VA Abandons Thousands Of Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas In Secret Experiments

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The U.S. military conducted secret experiments on thousands of veterans during World War II, exposing them to mustard gas. Despite endless promises to take care of the test subjects, the Department of Veterans Affairs has seemingly abandoned them.

Mustard gas, though frequently used in World War I, rarely showed up on the battlefield in World War II. This time period, however, was an era of experimentation.

A total of 60,000 veterans participated in numerous experiments to determine what sorts of clothing or ointments worked as protective measures. The experiments took place at bases like Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, Camp Sibert in Alabama, as well as research institutions like the University of Chicago.

Many veterans, like Charlie Cavell, were forced into gas chambers and informed that if they told anyone about what had happened, they’d be locked away in Fort Leavenworth and given a dishonorable discharge from to military.

With records of the events declassified in the 1990s, the VA promised it would find 4,000 veterans affected and offer them compensation. In 1992, veterans testified at a National Academy of Sciences medical board, describing in detail their injuries stemming from the mustard gas.

“The Germans put Jews in the gas chamber,” veteran Johnnie H. Ross said in 1992. “The United States put their men in the gas chamber.”

According to an investigation conducted by NPR, the VA only tried to contact 610 veterans over a 20-year period. The form of contact? One letter. The VA claimed missing records and personnel information made it impossible to track down those affected. But an NPR researcher found 1,200 veterans in just a short period of time, making VA senior advisor for benefits Brad Flohr’s claims to the contrary hollow.

The veterans are mostly in their 80s and 90s now and still suffer from the ill effects of mustard gas exposure, which include emphysema, respiratory cancers and leukemia, among other medical problems. Almost 500 veterans from World War II die every day.

“I do think there is a little bit of that attitude of: ‘This is today’s problem, it will be gone by tomorrow,'” Porter Goss, a former Florida congressman, told NPR. “But this is a bargain we made. And this goes to the essence of ‘Can you trust your government?’ And in this case I’m afraid the answer is not yet.”

Many claims filed under a lowered criteria of evidence have sat ignored. In Cavell’s case, his records have been readily available for decades, but it was only until after NPR contacted the VA that the department stated it would re-evaluate his case.

Cavell is one of the lucky ones.

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