Late Breaking News
A New Era of DoD/VA Collaboration: Identifying Chemical and Biological Test Subjects
- Categorized in: October 2009
In the summer of 2000, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wrote a letter to the Defense Secretary requesting information about three chemical and biological (CB) tests carried out during the 1960s and 1970s as part of a Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD) program. This letter ultimately resulted in collaboration between the Department of Defense (DoD) and VA to identify all land- and sea-based testing of CB agents and stimulants. The collaboration led to an investigation of the medical testing of these CB agents and antidotes on human volunteers. As a result, DoD established a process to identify those exposed to CB agents, as well as the date, time and place of exposure, while VA established processes to find addresses for these individuals and notify them of the possible exposure to CB agents. Each agency initially created its own database to maintain relevant information, but as the program expanded, DoD and VAhave found effective ways to share and exchange their data. Their collaborative investigation covered a period of time from 1946, when these programs began, to 1975.
Initial investigations into the SHAD tests revealed that they were part of a larger research effort called Project 112, a comprehensive program of CB tests that received its name because it was the 112th DoD project, out of 150 total, presented to then-Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. SHAD was a series of tests carried out on U.S. Navy ships to determine their vulnerability to air attack by CB agents. Some sailors were exposed to stimulants – airborne agents that behave like toxins, but were not believed to be a health-threat to humans. When “live” agents were used in these tests, sailors were either not present or were in a citadel – a sealed space protected from the live agent. Land based CB testing was also done to evaluate how these agents behaved in different climates and terrains. When military personnel were in these areas, they wore CB protective gear.
DoD investigators went through an active search of archived paper records in multiple locations from September of 2000 until June 30, 2003. They determined that Project 112/SHAD researchers had planned 134 tests from 1962 to 1974, but only 50 tests were actually conducted -19 on ships and 31 on land. It is estimated that 94% of the identified service members had participated in sea-based tests. In a memorandum published in 1993 by DoD, veterans were released from their oaths of secrecy. This allowed many documents pertaining to chemical research studies prior to 1968 to be declassified. Thus, the large-scale outreach, treatment and compensation of veterans by the DoD and VA were possible for the first time.
Names and service numbers were provided to VA as DoD discovered them. VA would then attempt to locate the social security number and current address for each individual. Upon completion of the process, VA sent letters to 4,441 identified Project 112/SHAD members, in which each participant was offered a complete examination. DoD began releasing detailed fact sheets on each test in September 2001 to make the investigation results available to the general public. A website for Project 112/SHAD followed in September 2007, which identified each planned test and the date and location for each test that was conducted. The CB agent(s) used in each test, as well as disinfectants used to clean the ships after CB testing were also identified, along with medical information as to what health hazards are recognized today from such exposures.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted an audit on this DoD-VA cooperative program in May of 2004 and concluded that the effort was successful. The GAO recommended that a similar process be carried out for all other CB testing done by DoD from 1946 forward. DoD put out a contract in September 2004 for investigators to start identifying all locations and testing programs for CB agents and antidotes/vaccines. That investigation is scheduled to run through 2011. Names of volunteers, identification of what the exposure(s) were, locations, and dates are all set to be collected. This information will then be supplied to the VA for their use in finding addresses and notifying individual service members.
To assist in the investigative process, the Project 112/SHAD website was redeveloped and expanded to include all CB exposures from World War II (mustard and Lewisite) and the Cold War (volunteer testing). The new site, renamed the Chemical and Biological Warfare Exposures Web site, went live on October 6, 2008 as part of a larger outreach and communications strategy implemented to gather and pursue leads from veterans, and to explain why testing was done, where it was done and what sorts of tests were done.
For the last two years, DoD and VA have also been developing an interactive, shared database so each agency can enter their required information and view information provided by the other. Use of the new CB database is restricted to specific individuals in DoD and VA because of privacy and protected health information requirements. However, both agencies will now be able to identify and release the number of veterans who were involved in each of these CB testing programs, as well as the number who have been identified, and the type of exposures that occurred.
Working together, VA and DoD have an opportunity to positively impact the lives of service members who served their country. Today, thanks to the committed efforts of both agencies, more than 8,000 letters have been sent out to veterans across the globe informing them that historical research has verified their participation in CB testing. These letters represent the culmination of decades of research, collaboration and investigation between the DoD and VA. Both agencies have continued to adapt and reshape their processes to become an even more efficient and engaging force, working together in a one-government approach to health care.
Michael E. Kilpatrick, M.D., is Director of Strategic Communications for the Military Health System in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs