About 6,000 of the soldiers that the U.S. Army tested potential chemical and biological weapons on are still living and may be eligible for medical care, including 149 veterans known to be in North Carolina, the military says.
From 1922 until 1975, the government has said it may have used as many as 100,000 soldiers as human test subjects, taking them out of their regular duty for up to a couple of months, exposing them to a range of agents and taking careful notes on how they reacted. Most of the soldiers were not told what they were being given and were told never to talk about the tests.
After years of litigation, the Army has begun notifying some of the former test subjects that they can apply for medical care, but one North Carolina veteran says the Army continues to delay telling the soldiers what they were exposed to so they can get the proper care.
“The government’s way of approaching this is to stall and delay until we’re all dead,” Frank Rochelle, 69, of Onslow County, said this week. “This has gone on so long, and the government has spent millions fighting, when it could have taken that money and said to the vets, ‘Here. You have free medical care.’ Which is what they guaranteed they would do to begin with.”
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Rochelle is one of the original plaintiffs in a successful lawsuit filed in federal court in California in 2009 to force the Army, the Department of Defense, the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs to use government records to identify soldiers who were used as chemical and biological test subjects from ’22 to ’75. The suit also wants the agencies to tell the subjects what they were exposed to during the tests and to provide medical care for those having problems that could be related to the toxins.
After the lawsuit was filed, Rochelle and the other individual plaintiffs were joined by two veterans groups, Vietnam Veterans of America and Swords to Plowshares, making the case a class action on behalf of all veterans who had been used in the tests. Earlier this year, a judge ordered the government to make the notifications and provide the care.
In early November, some veterans began receiving notices that they might be eligible for health care and instructing them to apply. Veterans must provide service records, including anything showing they participated in the tests, along with documentation of related medical issues.
The Army did not send information about which chemical or biological agents had been used on individual veterans. Without that, Rochelle and veterans advocates say, the vets can’t say whether problems they’re having now are connected to substances they were exposed to then.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Command said the Army has identified about 6,000 individuals who participated in tests. The Army has contact information for 3,919 of those, Maria L. Tolleson said, and has sent letters. As more eligible veterans are found, they will receive letters as well, she said.
So far, Tolleson said, 130 veterans or their family members have responded to the letters, including five from North Carolina. Nationwide, 28 have applied for care, she said.
Asked when the government would tell the veterans what agents they had been exposed to in the tests, Tolleson wrote: “Where we have records available, the veteran will be notified of his exposure when he contacts us. Older record retention rules and the perishable nature of paper documents over time contributed to their loss and unavailability. The source data we used was derived from available DoD/VA records and data provided by veterans themselves. This data in many cases is incomplete; therefore, in certain cases, we cannot confirm which agents veterans may have been exposed to or who received placebos. However, the Army will ensure every consideration is given to the veteran when determining eligibility for medical care.”
Government documents detail the work of the Chemical Warfare Service, which manufactured, tested and stockpiled substances such as mustard gas, Sarin, LSD and other psychotropic drugs and neurotoxins at facilities across the nation starting after World War I. Some of the testing was done to develop chemical and biological agents that could be used to help interrogate enemy prisoners, or to incapacitate large numbers of people without killing them. Other testing was to help develop gear and clothing to defend against toxins that might be used against U.S. forces.
Testing subjects were recruited from military bases and usually were sent for temporary duty at sites such as the sprawling Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where Rochelle says he was sent in November 1967.
Volunteers were offered perks such as four-day work weeks with no KP or guard duty. Some were promised medals. They were assured, Rochelle said, they would not be harmed by the tests and that their health would be monitored afterward. They were not told what they were being given, and they took oaths never to discuss the tests.
Rochelle says he was lucky in that he was able to get records indicating he had been involved in three different tests, including one of a hallucinogenic that caused him to see animals coming out of the walls and bugs under his skin. After he got out of the Army, Rochelle said he began to suffer eye problems and psychological issues he couldn’t explain, and wondered what he had been exposed to during his two months at Edgewood.
In the 2000s, through the internet, he found other veterans who had volunteered for the tests and suspected their health issues were connected.
Rochelle and other veterans eventually found a champion in a California lawyer, Gordon Erspalmer of the firm Morrison and Foerster, who took the case pro bono. Erspalmer’s father had been irradiated during a U.S. underwater atomic bomb test and was denied treatment by the VA. After his father’s death, Erspalmer succeeded in getting benefits for radiation survivors.
Gordon Erspalmer died of brain cancer in 2014, but the law firm continued the case on behalf of the testing subjects, of whom the government has said there could have been as many as 100,000 between 1922 and 1975.
The youngest of the test subjects would be about 60 years old now.
The U.S. government officially stopped human testing of offensive chemical and biological weapons in 1969, under President Richard Nixon.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon asked Congress for permission to use non-FDA-approved medical substances on soldiers in the field outside the nation, saying medics could save lives if they had access to such things as freeze-dried plasma that are available in other countries but not in the United States.
Eligible veterans are encouraged to go to http://armymedicine.mil/Pages/cbtp.aspx or call 800-984-8523 for help.