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Trump signs bill easing way for WWII vets' mustard gas claims

By CHUCK RAASCH | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: August 16, 2017

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed legislation making it easier for a Missouri World War II vet and others of his generation to receive benefits to treat conditions from secret mustard gas experiments they were subjected to more than 60 years ago.

The amendment to a broader veterans bill signed by Trump was pushed through Congress by Sen Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and others. It essentially shifts the burden of proof from the veterans to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Every once in a while, Congress gets it right,” McCaskill said.

The legislation was co-sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. McCaskill said the legislation did not get its final boost for approval until Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Georgian who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, got behind it.

The bill also has the support of David Shulkin, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who earlier this summer said of Missouri veteran Arla Wayne Harrell, whose claims of injury from mustard gas have repeatedly been denied: “We believe him.”

Previous VA administrators had not gone nearly that far in saying they believed the vets’ claims, and VA case workers had repeatedly denied claims Harrell, of Macon, Mo., despite mounting evidence proving vets were exposed at Camp Crowder in Missouri during the way.

"Mr. Harrell has waited a long time," Shulkin said, adding that "this is a great day for Mr. Harrell and his family, as well.

"We are deeply appreciative of the 400 or so veterans that we believe have been waiting for too long to be recognized for what they deserve," he said, adding that the bill "allows the VA to move forward and do the right thing."

Harrell’s family has said their father has had over a quarter century of denied claims, and that he has been dismayed by the thought that his government did not believe him.

Harrell had kept secret his exposure to mustard gas for almost a half century. As an 18-year-old, they said, he had been threatened with military prison if he talked about the experiments.

McCaskill said she will now press the VA to put the cases like Harrell’s at the head of the VA claims line. The bill includes about $1 million in funding over 10 years to cover the 300-400 World War II vets that are still alive and have had mustard gas claims denied. The government has estimated that as many as 60,000 American World War II veterans were exposed to chemical experiments during the war.

Beverly Howe, one of Harrell’s daughters, is a nurse trained in chemical and biological weapons. The family is waiting for the VA’s response to their latest appeal. If that fails, then the Harrells can refile, and the bill signed by Trump now puts the burden of proof on the VA to disprove Harrell’s claims.

Howe said she and her sisters were not permitted to wear perfume when they lived at home because of her father’s lung problems, which she said doctors were never able to properly treat.

“My dad was not like other fathers,” she said. “He was not able to play out in the yard with us, he was not able to cut the grass. He was able to go to work, but when he came home from work all he could do was sit down. My mother would sometimes bring his food to him because he was so tired, so exhausted and, frankly, so short of breath. It was more effort than he could make to go up and sit at the table.”

Howe said her mother had to sell the family home near Macon in order to keep Arla in a nursing home. He is unable to speak, but can communicate with nods and expressions, Beverly said.

She said her father, and the family, do not have resentment toward those who subjected him to the tests. They are, however, frustrated at dealing with the government in trying to get help from the VA to treat the condition. They filed the first claim in 1991, and have lost repeated appeals since then.

“Times were different when we were in World War II,” she said. “I have no ill feelings toward the Army of that era, it is not the same era that it is today. We know a lot more about those kinds of things than we did then.

“Where I hold the moral ground," Howe continued, "is the fact that when these men were released from these vows of secrecy, our county didn’t stand up at that point and say, 'We got it, we got your back, we are going to make sure that you are taken care of in the way you should have been taken care of 50 years ago.'”

©2017 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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Pallets of 155 mm artillery shells containing mustard gas await destruction at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado.
U.S. ARMY

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