Veterans were ‘Guinea pigs’ in Army’s chemical experiments. Now they need answers.

Workers at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where the U.S. Army made and tested biological and chemical warfare agents for decades.
Workers at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where the U.S. Army made and tested biological and chemical warfare agents for decades. National Archives

Decades after the U.S. Army used soldiers to test the effects of potent chemical and biological warfare agents – including some prohibited by the Geneva Protocol – it has begun notifying veterans that they may be eligible for government-paid medical care for related injuries and illnesses.

But the Army still has not revealed to individual veterans what substances they were exposed to during the tests. A veterans advocacy group says the government is refusing to use its own databases to track down eligible veterans.

“The Army is continuing to bargain in bad faith,” said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America, a national veterans advocacy group that sued the government over the way it has treated the testing subjects.

“They did all this stuff in secret, so there are no public lists as to who underwent these experiments. But they know who it was, in virtually all cases. They also have the capability of going to the Veterans Administration and to the Social Security Administration and easily finding everybody who went through the experiments. But they’re not doing it. And they’re not willing to say what people were exposed to, under the guise that it’s a matter of national security.

“It’s not,” Weidman continued. “Embarrassment is not national security.”

The Army began mailing notices this month to veterans who were exposed to a range of potential chemical and biological weapons during tests conducted between 1942 and 1975. A spokeswoman for U.S. Army Medical Command, which announced that the mailings had begun, did not immediately respond to emailed questions about whether the government is fulfilling court orders to notify eligible veterans.

To be eligible for medical care under the program, veterans must have:

▪ A Department of Defense Form 214 or a War Department discharge separation form or the equivalent.

▪ Served as a medical research subject between 1942 and 1975.

▪ A diagnosed medical condition they believe to be a direct result of their participation in a U.S. Army bio-chemical testing program.

The Army was ordered to notify veterans as a result of a lawsuit launched in the late 2000s by Frank Rochelle, a North Carolina veteran who wanted the Army to tell him what he was exposed to during tests he volunteered for in the 1960s.

The case became a class action that eventually included seven other named veterans and possibly tens of thousands more who were represented in the lawsuit by Vietnam Veterans of America and the group Swords to Plowshares.

When the suit was filed in 2009, the government said that as many as 100,000 people may have been used for testing between 1922 and 1975, when the Army says it halted human experimentation.

“Some of these veterans don’t know what they were exposed to even now, decades later,” said James Hancock, an attorney with Morrison and Foerster, which is handling the case in federal court in California.

Soldiers volunteered

When they were in service, soldiers volunteered for the testing by responding to recruitment posters that sometimes offered participants medals and days off. Volunteers were sent to Army laboratories in Maryland and other states. Most were not told what they would be exposed to or what the risks were, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs uncovered documents indicating that veterans were exposed to mustard gas, Sarin, phosgene gas, Thorazine, LSD, amphetamines, barbiturates and other substances at sometimes 10 or more times known tolerances. The purpose of the tests was to determine what doses of different agents could be used to get spies to talk during interrogations, and what could be used to incapacitate large numbers of people without killing them.

Mustard gas reactors at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where the U.S. Army made and tested biological and chemical warfare agents for decades. National Archives

In the 1980s, the National Academies of Science determined the tests had caused no significant long-term physical harm, except in veterans exposed to larger doses of mustard gas. In 2004, the NAS followed up and said veterans could suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of perceived exposure to bio-chemical warfare agents.

Rochelle said at the time he filed the lawsuit that he had been having some physical and psychological problems he couldn’t explain, including high blood pressure, memory loss, eye problems and PTSD-like symptoms such as nervousness, sudden bursts of anger and trouble sleeping.

Most of the volunteers signed oaths of secrecy about the testing.

Through the lawsuit, veterans sought to be given the information the Army has about what each test subject was exposed to; to be released from the secrecy oath so they could talk to doctors about the exposures and whether those related to current medical issues; and to get relevant screening and medical care through the VA or through hospitals and clinics on military posts.

‘Guinea pigs’

Hancock said that in fighting the lawsuit, the Army had argued that the veterans were misreading the Army’s own regulations saying it must notify testing subjects of the exposures and provide medical care where needed. The judge in the case disagreed, and ordered the Army to make the notifications and provide care.

Hancock said attorneys still are negotiating with the Army and are prepared to go back to court to force it to fulfill its obligation to the testing subjects.

In the meantime, said Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America, the veterans – the youngest of whom are now 60 – continue to die.

“[The Army] didn’t have respect for these young people as citizens,” Weidman said. “They regarded them as guinea pigs, as subjects, as opposed to each one being an American citizen who had pledged his life and limb in defense of the Constitution. They treated them as chattel.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

For help

Eligible veterans are encouraged to go to http://armymedicine.mil/Pages/cbtp.aspx or call 800-984-8523 for help.