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McCaskill highlights troubles facing WW II veterans involved in mustard-gas experiments

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
File photo
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO

Death already has claimed roughly 90 percent of the nation’s military veterans who were subject to the U.S. military’s  secret mustard gas experiments during World War II.

But just because those veterans are gone, doesn’t mean their troubles should be forgotten. That’s the view of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who is sponsoring a bill to make it easier for the mustard gas survivors to qualify for benefits.

The senator is among members of Congress who have been examining the issue since National Public Radio produced a report on the experiments last year.

“This is a situation that from Day 1, the burden should have been on the military and the Veteran Administration,” McCaskill told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. “Not on the veterans.”

Only about 40 of the affected veterans have obtained benefits, out of about 4,000 believed to have been eligible right after the war. Only about 400 remain alive, she said.

The senator’s chief beef is that the soldiers who were subjected to the experiments have largely been denied benefits because the military is requiring that they provide proof of their participation. But that proof can be difficult, since the experiments were kept classified until the 1970s – and few records remain that confirm that the tests were even conducted.

“To this day, no one at the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense will even acknowledge that these tests were done at Camp Crowder,” McCaskill said, referring to a now-defunct military base in southwest Missouri. “And we have the photographic evidence.”

Among the servicemen who says he was subjected to the mustard-gas experiments at Camp Crowder is Arla Harrell of Bevier, Mo. Now 89, he suffered ill health for decades. His family blames the mustard gas.

Harrell has been unable to qualify for special VA benefits because no records have been found to confirm his participation in the experiments.

McCaskill said that appears to be true for most of the soldiers who were involved in the mustard-gas experiments. They include Harrell, who is believed to be the last living Missouri veteran subjected to the gas experiments.

McCaskill has named her bill “The Arla Harrell Act.” Among other things, it would require “a quick review of previously denied claims,”  make it easier for the servicemen to prove their participation in the tests, and revamp the VA’s process for handling benefit applications.

Her measure also is calling for an investigation into how the VA and the Defense Department have dealt with the matter “to determine what went wrong with this process and officially acknowledge the horror these servicemen endured.”

Her staff has prepared and released a report, entitled “Cruel and Unusual Service,’’ that details the military’s experiments during World War II and outlines her calls for change.

The report’s chief findings include:

  • That the VA “failed to adequately notify veterans exposed to mustard gas” or other poisonous chemical gas used in the experiments that they were eligible for benefits;
  • “The VA’s list of eligible medical conditions is incomplete;”
  •  “The VA relies on incomplete, conflicting data” regarding the servicemen’s exposure;
  • The VA has failed to provide a transparent process for handling the claims from veterans;
  • “Veterans are unable to prove exposure due to missing or inadequate records;”
  • “The VA denies the vast majority of  benefits claims.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.