Herald-Whig View

U.S. military veterans who were gassed deserve better from VA

Posted: Jun. 8, 2016 9:30 am
U.S. MILITARY veterans who were exposed to mustard gas during the closing months of World War II would get the medical aid they need under proposed federal legislation.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is sponsor of the Arla Harrell Act, named for a veteran from Macon, Mo., who experienced decades of illness after the mustard gas experiments. Officials at Veterans Administration hospitals said they lacked the proof that Harrell or others had taken part in tests that were kept secret for nearly 40 years.

Harrell was in his teens in 1945 when officials at Camp Crowder, Mo., put mustard gas agents on his skin and later put him, and many others, in what has been described as a gas chamber where the toxic gas was released.

Mustard gas causes blisters and severe burning of the skin, eyes and lungs. First used widely during World War I by the German army, the chemical agent was banned under the Geneva Convention even before medical professionals learned of the long-term side effects such as cancer and lingering respiratory diseases.

About 4,000 U.S. soldiers were subjected to nonlethal amounts of the chemical weapon in its gaseous form, but only about 40 were able to prove their claims. Their efforts to get medical coverage for injuries from the experiments were hampered by the loss of military records, destroyed by fire in 1973.

Congress in 1993 ordered the VA to contact veterans who were potentially exposed. Sadly, lawmakers did not follow up on those efforts. Thousands of those veterans died with no recognition that their health had been compromised by the ill-advised experiments.

Not only did the VA fail to seek out those who were exposed, the agency denied 1,028 of the 1,213 disability claims filed between 2005 and 2015 related to mustard agents.

McCaskill last week chided Congress and Veterans Affairs for failing to take action sooner. She included a provision in the bill that directs the VA, once again, to seek out veterans exposed in the mustard gas tests.

More than 70 years ago someone totally lacking in medical knowledge thought it was a good idea to test chemical agents on U.S. soldiers. The Pentagon kept the tests secret for decades, denying soldiers the chance to discuss the cause of ailments with their doctors. Then when Congress ordered the VA to work with veterans, nobody listened.

McCaskill's legislation is a credible start at fixing a problem that should have been solved long ago.

Veterans should receive the care they've been promised. Americans should never accept less for those who have served.