(NEW YORK) MintPress — Four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, a group of veterans of that conflict are still fighting, this time for much needed medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many believe the severe health problems they are facing today were caused by chemicals they received during secret drug testing by the United States military, and they are seeking compensation in court.
From 1955 to 1975, military researchers at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland were using so-called military volunteers to test myriad drugs ranging from incapacitating agents like BZ to potentially lethal nerve gases, including VX and sarin, and hallucinogens such as LSD.
Initially, the top secret program was intended to find ways to defend against a chemical or biological attack by the Soviet Union, but the research later expanded into the offensive use of chemical weapons against an enemy.
In July 1975, the Washington Post reported that a top civilian drug researcher for the Army said a total of 6,940 servicemen had been involved in chemical and drug experiments. In a May 2004 report, however, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) stated that there were even more victims of the experimental program, a number that may never be completely known.
The plight of the “volunteers”
A lawsuit filed on behalf of Edgewood vets — including three veterans rights groups and seven individuals — begins: “This action chronicles a chilling tale of human experimentation, covert military operations, and heretofore unchecked abuses of power by our own government.”
In the suit, all of the individuals claim they were duped into volunteering to test gas masks and new chemical warfare clothing and were not allowed to leave once they learned the truth; researchers did not tell service members what drugs they were receiving; the men had adverse reactions immediately after ingesting the chemicals and rapidly deteriorating health ever since; and all were warned never to tell anyone about their time at the facility.
In addition, none of the men have been compensated for any of the damages suffered or reimbursed for any treatment.
Each of the cases is heartwrenching. Take 63-year-old Tim Josephs, who spent two months at Edgewood. Just before his duty there ended, he was hospitalized for days with Parkinson’s-like symptoms that continued to follow him for years. In his mid-50s, he was diagnosed with the disease and forced to retire early.
“I really felt a duty to my country to go and serve,” he said in a recent interview. “You believed in your government. And you just wouldn’t think they would give you something that would harm you intentionally.”
Bruce Price began having troubles with his memory within weeks of leaving Edgewood and has been completely disabled for years. Franklin Rochelle suffers from memory loss, anxiety, vision problems, difficulty breathing and sleep apnea, while William Blazinski has been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and ulcerative colitis. And the list goes on.
In addition to medical benefits, the lawsuit is asking that the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs find all Edgewood veterans and provide them with details of the chemicals they received and their possible health effects.
The suit claims that the defendants’ promises in the 1970s and in the decades that followed to locate the victims of their program and to provide compensation and health care “proved to be hollow.”
Gordon Erspamer, one of the lawyers for the vets, said the government has reached very few of the 7,000 or so Edgewood veterans, and the VA has turned down almost all Edgewood-related health claims. Documents show that the Veterans Benefits Administration rejected 84 of 86 health claims related to chemical or biological exposure.
Government on the defensive
The Defense Department said in a statement that “In order to best serve veterans and their families, VA continues to study the possibility of long-term health effects associated with in-service exposure to chemical and biological weapons.”
In the 1980s, at the Army’s request, the Institute of Medicine, an independent nonprofit organization that is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, produced a three-volume report on the long-term health of Edgewood veterans. The IOM decided in the end there wasn’t enough information to reach “definitive conclusions.”
“They’re hoping we die off, so if you apply (for benefits), you get turned down,” said veteran Tim Josephs. “And it just goes on for years and years, and they just want to wear us down. They want to use young men as guinea pigs and throw them away.”