Rep. Mike Thompson seeks justice for veterans exposed to chemical tests
The Pentagon conducted a series of secret chemical and biological weapons tests involving military personnel in the 1960s and 1970s. Veterans groups and members of Congress are demanding to know exactly what happened – and who has suffered.
The tests, known as Project 112 and SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense) involved some 6,000 military personnel between 1962 and 1974, the Vietnam War era. Most served in the Navy and Army. The purpose was to identify any weaknesses to U.S. ships and troops and develop a response plan for a chemical attack.
The tests involved nerve agents like Sarin and Vx, and bacteria such as E. Coli. Sarin and Vx are both lethal. According to DOD documents, death can occur within 10 to 15 minutes of exposure to a fatal dose of Vx.
After exposure to a sufficient amount of Sarin, symptoms include, “difficulty breathing, dimness of vision, confusion, drowsiness, coma, and death.”
“Veterans were exposed to some of the most extreme and hazardous agents... and they now suffer from debilitating health care conditions,” said Ken Wiseman, senior vice commander of the Virginia branch of The Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the nation’s largest veterans groups, at a press conference outside the Capitol Wednesday. They want to know more about the extent to which service personnel were exposed.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Information about the tests first surfaced in 2000. At the request of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Pentagon released some limited data about the nature of the tests, including the locations and the agents used. Since then, the VA has sponsored studies by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2007 and 2016 to look at the tests’ effects.
While they found no significant difference in the health of veterans involved in the tests and those who were not, the authors acknowledged the difficulty of studying this issue.
“Our task was challenging because of the passage of time since the tests, and because many of the documents related to the tests remain classified,” last year’s report said. “Our requests for declassification of additional documents were not approved.”
A VA spokesperson did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Lawmakers from both parties are pushing the House to endorse their demand this week when it considers a defense policy bill.
Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., Don Young, R-Alaska, and Walter Jones, R-N.C. are trying to require the secretary of defense to declassify and disclose documents about the tests or tell Congress why he can’t.
“It’s been over 50 years since these tests were conducted and the DOD has yet to provide a complete accounting of what truly happened to our service members,” Thompson said. “Veterans can’t wait any longer.”
Veterans say they need answers to get the proper medical care.
“This amendment would help veterans exposed to chemical and biological agents get the access to care and benefits they’ve earned through their service,” said John J. Gennace, assistant director of the American Legion’s national legislative division.
In the Senate, Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, plans to push the veterans’ agenda.
“We have a duty to make certain our service members’ health is protected both in and out of service, and providing access to classified military records that may prove exposure to toxic substances is critical to veterans applying for VA benefits and service-connection,” Moran said in a statement.
Contact: Anshu Siripurapu at 202-383-6009. Twitter: @anshusiripurapu