VA leader supports efforts to help WWII vets exposed to mustard gas, McCaskill says
By CHUCK RAASCH | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: June 15, 2017
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tribune News Service) — Sen. Claire McCaskill said Thursday that new Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told her he personally supports her legislation to make it easier for World War II veterans to prove they were exposed to mustard gas experiments during the war.
But so far, the Veterans Administration he runs has not.
Her bill, the Arla Wayne Harrell Act, would appropriate $1 million annually for 10 years to cover health treatment for the rapidly dwindling number of World War II vets who claimed they were exposed to the experiments, suffered health problems as a result and were forbidden for decades of talking about the experiments for fear of being thrown in military jail for divulging military secrets.
The VA has officially denied most claims of mustard gas exposure made by World War II vets. McCaskill estimated there may only be 400 of these veterans left, although determining exact numbers is difficult.
McCaskill’s bill is named after Arla Wayne Harrell, of Macon, Mo., a town about 180 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Harrell turned 90 in March. He has told family members he was twice exposed to mustard gas experiments at Camp Crowder in southwestern Missouri as an 18-year-old late in World War II. He did not talk about it, even to his family, for years because he was told he'd be divulging military secrets, family members say.
After being asked about possible exposure by a VA doctor decades after the war, his family has had multiple claims for health benefits denied by the VA. His family said Harrell has suffered breathing problems and other health issues since the end of the war.
The Post-Dispatch has reported that post-war Corps of Engineers work at the now-defunct Camp Crowder exposed evidence of chemical weapons, including vials of mustard gas. Harrell's family has provided the VA records of his hospitalization around the time he said he was exposed.
A 2015 Corps of Engineers document describes chemical weapons testing that exposed troops at Camp Crowder.
"The Chemical Exercise Area was used for chemical warfare training between 1942 and 1946," the report said. "Chemical warfare training included field exercises where soldiers were exposed to chemical agents in settings that simulated actual battlefield conditions."
It referred to maps of the camp that identified "gas chambers." The land where the camp was located now has residential homes, a horse pasture and a chicken farm, the report said.
Harrell’s children say their father’s health is failing, and that that they are primarily interested in getting the VA to recognize that he as been telling the truth over a quarter century.
The VA is “calling him a liar," McCaskill told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday.
McCaskill said her bill would not expose the government to new claims, but simply allow for a more expedited process that would allow veterans who have already made claims to prove their cases.
She said that despite the government's recognition that the tests took place, only a few veterans have been successful in proving mustard gas exposure and that vets making claims have been hampered both by the military’s sketchy record-keeping of the experiments and by a fire at a military records center in St. Louis in 1973.
“I know the secretary of the VA supports this, he has told me he does,” McCaskill told the committee. “I am very hopeful that this committee will finally give these brave men who kept a terrible secret for many years” a better chance to prove their cases.
“Every day that passes there are fewer” World War II vets, McCaskill said.
Attempts to get a comment from Shulkin were not immediately successful.
The VA committee postponed a vote on the bill Thursday, but its chair, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., noted McCaskill’s “tenacity" in pushing it.
Trish Ayers, one of Harrell’s daughters, said Thursday that her father spent long stretches of the winter in the hospital, but that he has improved lately.
“When I told dad about the Arla Harrell Act coming before the VA committee he teared up,” she said. “This is still very important to him. “