Law Requires Reconsideration of Mustard Gas Claims by WWII Veterans

by Sandra Basu

August 13, 2017

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump signed a bill directing VA and DoD to reconsider and make new determinations for all previously denied claims for benefits related to exposure to mustard gas or lewisite, a compound used as a chemical weapon.

The bill was approved by both the House and Senate before the August recess.

“This legislation will hold the U.S. government to its promise to care for veterans whose health has been harmed as a direct result of their honorable military service,” said American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt after passage of the bill.

At issue, according to proponents of the bill, is that thousands of World War II servicemembers were exposed to mustard gas or lewisite during secret experiments conducted by the military. The U.S. military finally acknowledged its role in the experiments once the last of the experiments was declassified in 1975. Many veterans did not come forward, however, until an oath of secrecy – which they said they were mandated to take—was lifted in 1991.

While a process was established by VA for compensation, advocates point out that 90% of the veterans who applied for benefits for mustard gas have been rejected. Only about 40 of the claims for benefits have been accepted.

“In total, approximately 60,000 servicemembers are estimated to have participated in these tests, with about 4,000 facing the most extreme forms of full-body exposure. Less than 400 of them are still alive today,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who authored the Senate bill, told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last month.

Arla Harrell Act

The bill instructs VA and DoD to presume a veteran’s full-body exposure to mustard agents, unless either agency can definitively prove otherwise when making claims determinations. The agencies may not solely rely on their existing data sources to make such a determination, according to the bill.

At the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing this summer McCaskill said the current VA disability claims process is not capable of giving mustard gas veterans the “fair treatment they deserve.”

“The existing framework cannot adequately account for the classified nature of the testing, the years of secrecy, the poor record keeping, and for some veterans the destruction of their case files in the massive 1973 fire at the personnel records center,” she said.

The bill, according to McCaskill “does not open the door to new applicants,” but would pertain to those who have already applied. The bill would appropriate $10 million over the next 10 years to cover WWII vets who claim they were exposed to mustard gas.

The legislation is named after 90-year-old WW II veteran Arla Harrell, who was exposed to mustard gas at age 18 after he volunteered for a special duty that he was told was testing for summer clothing for the military. It turned out instead to be an experiment involving timed exposure to mustard gas in a locked chamber.

He said he was mandated to sign a vow of secrecy, which stated that he could not speak about any of these events for 50 years. When he eventually submitted a claim to VA, he was denied by the agency.

Calling the situation an “extreme injustice,” McCaskill said the impact of these tests have lasted a “lifetime” for veterans.

Veterans’ groups have backed the bill. In a written statement to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs legislative service associate director Patrick Murry, said the “VFW believes those veterans who have previously applied for benefits related to exposure to mustard gas and Lewisite and were denied because the evidence of ’full-body’ exposure could not be proven, should be given the benefit of the doubt and have their claims adjudicated with the presumption of full body exposure.”

Bernard Edelman, deputy director for Policy and Government Affairs of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said “there is only a relative handful of the 60,000 or so veterans who were part of these experiments, but they are deserving of major justice that has been far too long denied them.”


Related Articles

Bill to Streamline, Expand VA’s Choice Program Signed Into Law

Legislation that would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program and expand VA’s caregiver program to veterans of all eras was signed into law earlier this month..

Despite Criticism, VA Healthcare as Good or Better Than Other Systems

The good news from a recent consultant study is that, overall, the VA healthcare system is generally equal or better than others when inpatient and outpatient quality is measured.


U.S. Medicine Recommends


More From department of veterans affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Bill to Streamline, Expand VA’s Choice Program Signed Into Law

Legislation that would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program and expand VA’s caregiver program to veterans of all eras was signed into law earlier this month..

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Despite Criticism, VA Healthcare as Good or Better Than Other Systems

The good news from a recent consultant study is that, overall, the VA healthcare system is generally equal or better than others when inpatient and outpatient quality is measured.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

VA Inks Contract for Massive New Health Record System

Calling it one of the largest IT contracts in the federal government, with a ceiling of $10 billion over a decade, then-VA Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie announced that the agency signed a contract with Cerner for its new electronic health record (EHR).

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Surprise! President Nominates Wilkie for Permanent VA Secretary

President Donald Trump said last month that acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie “has done an incredible job” and, in a surprise move, nominated him for the permanent Cabinet position.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Fibromyalgia Presents Differently in Male, Female Veterans

Research on fibromyalgia, a poorly understood, chronically disabling pain syndrome, generally has focused on its clinical presentation and treatment.

Facebook Comment

Subscribe to U.S. Medicine Print Magazine

U.S. Medicine is mailed free each month to physicians, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and administrators working for Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense and U.S. Public Health Service.

Subscribe Now

Receive Our Email Newsletter

Stay informed about federal medical news, clinical updates and reports on government topics for the federal healthcare professional.

Sign Up