VA ACCUSED OF FOOT-DRAGGING IN NOTIFYING "TEST VETS" -- VETERANS
EXPOSED TO CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL AGENTS ARE STILL WAITING FOR
NOTIFICATION FROM THE VA -- WHY IS THIS? -- ONE VET SAYS: "THEY
REALLY DON'T WANT TO DO IT...IF YOU WAIT LONG ENOUGH,
WE'LL ALL BE DEAD."
It's time for the VA to get off the dime and resolve this issue.
There is no reason for "Test Vets" to die while waiting.
Unless...that reason is money!
Story here... http://www.presstelegram.com/news/ci_3666200
VA: Foot-dragging seen
By Lisa Friedman, From our Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — Thousands of former servicemen who volunteered for chemical and biological tests in the 1960s and 70s might have been exposed to highly toxic substances that could jeopardize their health, and the U.S. government is scrambling to locate them.
The new list of nearly 7,000 names provided last year to the Department of Veterans Affairs servicemen who allowed themselves to be exposed to a range of agents, from nerve gases to Tularemia significantly increases the number of veterans who could become eligible for disability benefits.
VA officials say they are working as quickly as possible to verify the identities of the servicemen and the agents to which they were exposed, and to send out notifications. But veterans' advocates and some members of Congress note the government took more than a decade to notify World War II personnel they'd been exposed to chemical tests, and they're already skeptical of the pace this time around.
"You want to believe that they're serious, but there is, from my perspective, a lack of trust," said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, the leading Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "I don't want to be cynical here, but quite often the strategy of the department may be to let time pass."
Years of tests
The United States has conducted chemical and biological tests since before the Civil War. During World War II which has been called the "unfought chemical war" both sides produced, yet never used, millions of tons of chemical weapons.
In the meantime, thousands of servicemen were used as subjects in the chemical defense research. Many tests continued through the 1970s.
Army historian Jeffrey Smart has spent the past 22 years at Aberdeen Proving Ground, formerly the Edgewood Arsenal, where many of the chemical tests particularly on protective equipment were conducted.
He said documents show the men knew they were participating in potentially dangerous tests, but not the specific agents being used.
Ken Jones of Riverside said he knew exactly what he was doing when he volunteered in 1954 to be among 2,300 subjects in a germ-warfare project known as Operation White Coat.
The studies, which ran from 1954 to 1973, used mostly Seventh-day Adventist draftees like Jones whose religious beliefs discouraged combat and who were instead given the option of serving as human test volunteers.
While many veterans later said they felt pressured to sign the consent forms, Jones said he never felt coerced.
He can still recall the day he and two other men exchanged their fatigues for scrubs and entered the fabled "Eight Ball" at Fort Detrick, Md. a 1-million-liter test sphere used to study static microbial aerosols and strapped on gas masks before breathing in Q-fever for about five minutes.
"I'm not going to be out on the streets protesting, because I feel like what I did was a benefit to humanity," Jones said, noting that the tests helped the government develop hazmat suits, gas masks and vaccines.
Jones went into quarantine for 17 days and says he never developed health problems from the experience. Many others did, though, and Jones thinks the government should help those veterans.
House Veterans Affairs Committee aide Len Sistek said that's the goal of notifying veterans. The new list his staff provided to the government includes the names of military personnel who underwent testing at Fort Detrick; Edgewood Arsenal, now known as Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland; and Dougway Proving Ground in Utah.
"There's been a sea change in how America perceives this stuff," he said. "Whoever allowed the bad guy to get ahead of them with chemical or biological weaponry was at a huge disadvantage on the battlefield. It was part of the war effort."
Still, he and others argued, the government has a responsibility to provide benefits to those who did experience health problems.
"When you sign on the dotted line, you sign up for a broad spectrum of risks. But just because you were a volunteer does not mean America doesn't have a duty to you."
Leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs said they agree.
"Obviously we're concerned, and we want to provide outreach to anyone who may have been harmed by toxic chemical tests," said Thomas Pamperin, VA assistant director for policy.
He and Kim Tibbitts, the agency's assistant director for procedures for compensation and pension services, said they first have to determine who the servicemen are and what agents they were exposed to. Many names on the list, Tibbitts said, include only a name but no Social Security number, and identify chemicals by codes that must be tracked down with the Department of Defense.
From there, he said, the agency plans to use personnel records and address locating services to determine if the serviceman is still living, or has surviving relatives.
In the notification letters, Pamperin said, veterans will be told the chemical they were exposed to and the dosage, and be encouraged to seek hospital tests to determine if they suffered related injuries.
"If and, hopefully, none of them have been harmed they will receive the kind of compensation they're entitled to," Pamperin said.
Rick Weidman of the Vietnam Veterans of America accused the VA of dragging its feet.
"The VA is incredibly slow," he said. "They don't really want to do it. They will screw around with that list for a year or longer, and then they'll say they cannot find a lot of the veterans. If you wait long enough, we'll all be dead."
Pamperin strongly disputed the criticisms.
"I understand that some frustrated veterans believe that to be true," he said. "Our responsibility is to implement (veterans' benefits) to the full extent Congress has authorized it, without regard to how much is spent," he said.
Noting that over the past five years about 200,000 veterans have successfully sought compensation, he said, "I am unaware of anyone who has been formally or informally been telling us to slow down our ratings to save money."
Pamperin and Tibbitts said even if all 7,000 people on the new list apply for and obtain benefits, that's still a drop in the bucket compared with the 825,000 disability determinations it handles.
The agency is expected to start notifying the first 1,000 veterans on the list by July, according to the committee.
"It's just incumbent upon the department to find out and put this thing behind us," Strickland said. "It is going to take resources and effort, but it's something that needs to be done."
The Veterans Administration help line is (800) 749-8387.
Lisa Friedman can be reached at (202) 662-8731.