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.”
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..
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.