Bill aims to give soldiers exposed to mustard gas VA benefits
By JORDAN LARIMORE | The Joplin Globe, Mo. (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 5, 2017
For decades, Arla Harrell was sworn to secrecy.
The World War II veteran could tell no one, not even his doctors or family members, about the classified operation he was part of at Camp Crowder in Neosho. No one could know the reason for the health complications he continues to suffer today, including breathing complications and skin cancer.
Not until the government declassified the operations in 1975 and lifted the secrecy oath in the 1990s could Harrell tell of his involvement in a military-sponsored chemical research program, where he was exposed to mustard gas during the war. But even then, family members said Harrell and others had difficulty getting treatment for the ailments the tests caused.
The far-flung nature of the international testing operation, combined with a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that destroyed decades of service records, has made it difficult for participants to get treatment through Veterans Affairs, because they are required to prove their service with documentation and paperwork.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, aimed at alleviating that problem, is headed to the desk of President Donald Trump.
McCaskill's bill, which is named for Harrell and has been approved by both chambers of Congress, would shift the burden of proof to the agency.
“My father kept his vow of secrecy for over 50 years, and, to me, that’s remarkable," Harrell's daughter, Beverly Howe, said in a statement provided by McCaskill's office.
"My dad told her at the time when an article came out in a military magazine, told her what had happened to him, and at that point my mother being a nurse, you know, bells went off in her head about why he was having all these ailments that he had that were so atypical and unusual, and the doctors couldn’t really put their finger on it, and medicines weren’t working."
Now 90 years old, Harrell is one of approximately 60,000 members of the military who were part of the program, and among 4,000 who were exposed to high levels of mustard gas, according to McCaskill.
“When a Missouri veteran is mistreated, I take it personally, and I’ll take the fight to anyone, anywhere, to make it right,” McCaskill said in a statement. “After all these years, it’s frankly less about the benefits that Arla deserves, and will now receive; it’s about recognizing what he sacrificed for this country, and that he and his family deserve to hear three simple words from their government: 'We believe you.'"
Chemical weapons were first used in World War I, which led the United States — and other allies such as Great Britain, Australia and Canada — to test agents like mustard gas and lewisite when World War II approached. Though the gases weren't used in the war, Allied service members were used as test subjects at locations around the globe.
Although the chemicals are not fatal, they often incapacitated soldiers with difficulty breathing, seeing and blistering skin.
McCaskill's office says the bill will also require an investigation into claims for treatment made by other World War II veterans that were denied.
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