Veterans sickened from chemical weapons testing must seek treatment through VA hospitals, despite enormous backlogs.
Thousands of U.S. military veterans exposed to chemical weapons such as mustard gas and lewisite as part of the military’s secret weapons testing programs may be entitled to updated information from the government about the health hazards they may face, but a federal judge ruled on Wednesday that veterans won’t be able to receive government-funded health care from providers outside the Department of Veterans Affairs system.
In Oakland, Calif., Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled this week that although the VA is struggling to keep up with all of the physical and mental issues facing veterans today, the government is immune from lawsuits that would require it to pay private medical bills.
The veterans “have not shown that the care is inadequate or that they are unable to address any inadequacies through the (VA) system,” Wilken said.
Eugene Illovsky is a lawyer for the plaintiffs, which included Vietnam Veterans of America, Swords to Plowshares, other organizations and individual veterans. He said, “The VA system is a rationed system,” and that “we’re going to try to keep fighting on the issue as best we can.”
It is not yet known whether the groups will appeal Wilken’s ruling.
The U.S. first began testing the potential health effects of chemical weapons on soldiers during World War I. The program expanded during World War II to include more than 60,000 veterans. However, the Defense Department and VA have long refused to share the findings.
During the Cold War, the testing expanded to include psychiatric drugs such as LSD, in addition to chemical and biological substances. The Pentagon says it stopped testing chemical weapons on live subjects in 1975 and that all participants consented to the program, but government officials have acknowledged in recent years that they did not provide full information to the subjects about the chemicals or their possible effects.
Illovsky applauded Wilken’s ruling that “the Army has an ongoing duty … to provide test subjects with newly acquired information that may affect their well-being.”
Exposure to many “contaminants of concern” can cause serious medical conditions such as cancer and may result in death.
In a post for Veterans Today from 2010, veteran Robert O’Dowd, who served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft wings during the 1960s and slept in a radium-226-contaminated workspace, wrote that many veterans wanted information about contaminants because they want to “connect the dots of serious illness” and share the findings with their medical care provider.
Dowd also took issue with the military’s claims that the veterans voluntarily participated in the chemical programs.
“No one in their right mind would voluntarily live and work on a Superfund site,” he wrote. “For the most part, veterans are not provided the choice of military assignments.”