Defenseless.

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U.S. Soldiers Used as Guinea Pigs, Now Denied Care

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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For decades,  thousands of U.S. soldiers took the military up on an offer that was hard to refuse: a few days off from the drudgery of base life in exchange for letting scientists run them through a few safety tests. Those who accepted, however, were in for an appalling  surprise.

From just after World War I into the 1970s, soldiers and sailors were exposed to mustard gas, experimental nerve-agent antidotes and other toxic substances, all without their knowledge. Now the survivors want to know exactly what the military did to them. They want medical care. Yet the Pentagon seems intent on treating them like malingerers trying to get out of KP duty.

At least 70,000 troops are covered by a class-action suit claiming that these experiments caused cancers, emphysema and other serious illnesses. What they want seems understandable: to be told exactly what substances they were given and how risky they were, to be relieved of any confidentiality agreements they signed during the testing, and to receive care for any conditions that resulted. Yet the Pentagon and Justice Department continue to fight this effort, in part on the grounds that the military had tried unsuccessfully to reach out to them over the years.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California sided with the survivors, ordering the military to release the information and telling the Army, rather than the overburdened Department of Veterans Affairs, to treat their conditions. But that order did not end the travesty. The Pentagon is asking for a rehearing.

It's true that it will be hard to prove that any illnesses or deaths were the direct result of the tests. Even so, many of these men suffered through horrific experiences. For that alone, they deserve a day in court and compensation.

During World War II, fearing that Germany would resort to the weapons of the first world war, the Army and Navy used their personnel as guinea pigs to test the effects of mustard gas and the efficacy of protective gear. Some men, now in their 80s and 90s, recall being exposed to the nerve agent while locked in airtight chambers; the rooms had fans blowing across ice blocks to increase humidity, which makes the gas even more potent. Their skin turned red, blistered and even fell off their hands. Some say the skin conditions plague them still.

Records also show that scientists separated subjects by race, looking for differences in the reactions among blacks, Asians and Hispanics. A group of Puerto Rican service members were tested outdoors on a jungle island off Panama that made the Island of Dr. Moreau look like Club Med. "We had uniforms on to protect ourselves," one recalled. "There were rabbits. They all died."

While the men were characterized as volunteers, the available records make clear that many were ordered to take part. The War Department, as it was known at the time, didn't classify the testing as human experiments, thus technically avoiding the requirement for informed consent.

In later decades, the military turned to testing biological weapons and nerve weapons, in part to find ways to afflict the enemy with "fear, panic, hysteria, and hallucinations," as a scientist involved described it. One man put through this ordeal in 1970s who later got records of those experiments through the Freedom of Information Act found he was given a nerve-agent antidote that scientists knew had side effects, and them quickly another drug intended to counter the effects of the initial dose. Others were given the drug atropine, a hallucinogen; one ex-soldier says that for days afterward he heard imaginary voices and had visions of animals creeping out of walls.  

The military insists that it has not abandoned these men, claiming it has tried to contact those who were part of the trials. This rings hollow. In the early 1990s, after details of the World War II trials were declassified, the VA pledged to reach out to about 4,000 still-living Army and Navy veterans who were subject to the experiments. Yet it only contacted 610 of them, claiming that the records were such a mess it made identifying many individuals impossible. Its outreach effort consisted of a single letter, with no follow-up. Yet a researcher for National Public Radio, which has been dogged in investigating the scope of the program, says it was able to locate about twice as many survivors using the government's own data.

While the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments continue to thwart the victims, Congress is taking greater notice. In reaction to the NPR series, Representative Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he will hold a hearing in which VA officials will testify about their efforts to help the survivors. The VA has also pledged to double its efforts to locate those exposed to toxins in World War II testing.

Attention from Congress is welcome, but it is not the branch that needs to own up to its horrors. The Army should stop bickering with the VA about who has responsibility for the survivors' health care. The first step is to tell these men exactly what sort of mad science the military performed on them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net