Veterans Link Health Problems to Chemical Warfare Agent Tests at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah

Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah)

December 28, 2008 – Dwight Bunn easily becomes breathless and says he has lung scarring from exposure during chemical tests conducted in secrecy on troops while he was stationed at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Tooele County from 1962 to 1963.

David W. Davidson tried to hold his breath while being gassed at Dugway back in 1961. But he now has a laundry list of health maladies, any one of which may be connected to that day 47 years ago.

A doctor told Samuel Waller Anderson Jr. that the peripheral neuropathy in his feet and numbness in his hands was caused by some kind of exposure to chemicals. Anderson was stationed at Dugway from 1952 to 1956 and also was a guinea pig during tests at the isolated 1,300-square-mile Army base.

Government records show there may be hundreds, possibly thousands, more veterans like Anderson and Bunn — soldiers who were told shadowy military tests at Dugway and elsewhere wouldn’t hurt them but who decades later can’t explain what’s happening to their bodies.

The claims made by Bunn, Davidson and Anderson are also the type of stories that the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs want to hear. Both departments in September set up a Web site, fhp.osd.mil/CBexposures, which is partly intended to jog the memories of former soldiers, most of whom are now in their 60s and 70s.

The Web site details what types of chemical and biological agents were used in myriad tests at Dugway and other military bases and even at sea. The tests all took place toward the end of World War II and during the Cold War from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Back then, subjects used in the tests were told to keep quiet, and for decades, most stayed true to their government’s heavy-handed request. In some tests, soldiers simply weren’t told what was happening at the time, and to this day, they still don’t know much about what went on.

As of this month, the Defense Department had received e-mails from 119 individuals who had visited the Web site. Department officials had responded to 107 of the inquiries, in some cases directing vets to VA sources for help with filing claims.

A telephone hotline listed at the site has drawn 43 calls. Out of 614 benefit claims filed with the VA attempting to link old military tests with current health issues, 39 have been granted, according to Charlene Reynolds, a Virginia-based Defense Department spokeswoman over health affairs.

Washington-based VA spokesman Jim Benson said that vets need to be patient as the VA works with the Defense Department, which has the records on all those old tests.

“They should be encouraged that the VA is very much on their side,” Benson said. The key, he added, is starting with the Defense Department to get the process rolling.

Reynolds said her department is working closely with the VA to provide that agency with information about decades-old tests, many of which until only recently were classified. Some of the information the departments need is hard to come by.

“The investigation at Dugway is not done,” said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, Defense Department Military Health System director of strategic communications.

All of the unclassified testing has been identified, and most of all of those names are collected, he said this month. “They are really just getting started with the classified testing, so it may be a year before that work is done,” he said. “There’s no way to estimate how many tests or how many people.”

Kilpatrick said that if there is a “preponderance of evidence,” or a 50 percent chance or more, that a claim might be connected to military service, that person will get help through the VA.

But at least a few former soldiers say they feel like lab rats again, giving the government what it wants but getting little in return.

A chemical-weapons race

As of this past June, the U.S. Force Health and Readiness Programs counted 10,500 veterans who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals during more than two decades of tests, which government officials say are no longer conducted on humans.

The tests during the 1950s and 1960s came after the world had already seen the horrors of chemical warfare. The U.S. government estimates there were 90,000 deaths and over 1 million casualties during World War I from chemical agents. By the end of WWII, the U.S., Russia and Germany were fully engaged in a race to develop the nastiest types of chemical and biological agents they could find to use against their enemies.

“As part of this accelerated program, experiments used service members as human volunteers to determine the effects of chemical agents, as well as to develop therapeutics and prophylactics,” Defense Department officials now admit on their new Web site.

Real health problems, regardless of whether they are proven to be service-connected, are not going away for soldiers who were part of the tests at Dugway and elsewhere.

Bunn, 64, doesn’t figure the Defense Department or VA will come through for him, but he’s trying, hopeful he’ll get the benefits he thinks he deserves.

He now lives in North Bend, Wash. Decades ago, he took part in Project 112, which spawned Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense). Those projects were designed to test defenses against chemical and biological warfare on land and at sea. Many of Project 112’s tests were conducted at Dugway.

Bunn said he’s been trying since 2002 to get the VA to pay for tests on his lungs that will determine the best treatment options. His lung scarring makes it hard for him to exhale, although he inhales with relative ease.

To date, he has had to pay about $3,000 out of pocket for tests. A simple walk to the mailbox or playing with his granddaughter leaves the former private first class struggling to breathe. He wants relief.

Bunn said the VA has told him that his condition is related to exposure to asbestos during childhood. He disagrees, pointing to a time at Dugway when he spent a week in the hospital after one test.

“I’m not even sure what they were testing,” Bunn said. “They told me when they let me out that my lungs would not function correctly. But they had the greatness to write it up as an upper respiratory infection.”

On Nov. 5, Bunn contacted someone at the phone number listed on the new Web site. A month later, he was still waiting to hear about something that will help him.

“All I want is my medical benefits,” Bunn said. “I want this service-connected so that they’ll pay for all these tests. I’m still a guinea pig. They’re getting the information they want from my body, but I have to pay for it … I’m still a lab rat.”

Health problems

Samuel Anderson, 78, was a pilot in charge of shadowing a drone aircraft that sprayed nerve gas during tests at Dugway in 1955. A photographer on board his plane was supposed to record the drone’s activity. During one flight, Anderson received an alarming call over his radio.

“They kept yelling at me, ‘Return to base, return to base,”‘ Anderson recalled. “I wasn’t really certain what the situation was. Someone told me I had flown through the (nerve gas) cloud.”

Right after he landed, Anderson and the photographer stripped to their underwear and were sprayed with a decontaminant. “I thought: This is serious business. This is not play time,” Anderson said.

In the years that followed his honorable discharge from the Army as a first lieutenant in 1956, Anderson, who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., said his feet burned after exercise. He eventually was diagnosed as having neuropathy, which long term means he may completely lose feeling in his feet or even be forced to amputate one or both of them.

After Medicare covers some of Anderson’s medication, he pays about $7,000 a year of his own money to treat the neuropathy. He and his wife live on the stocks they have invested in over the years, and with the downturn in the economy, a lot of that money is disappearing, making the increasing cost of medication more of a worry for them.

Because Anderson didn’t serve overseas, he never felt worthy of approaching the VA for benefits. The new Web site and his worsening financial situation have changed his opinion.

“I can’t get it out of my mind that … this is related to what happened to me at Dugway,” Anderson said.

Anderson told his buddy Amos E. Long about the new Web site. They were at Dugway at the same time in 1955. They now keep in touch.

Long, 76, lives in Alabama. For years, he has suffered problems with his feet. One doctor told him he has nerve damage.

“When I wake up, it feels like my ankles are the size of volleyballs,” said Long, who left the Army as a first lieutenant.

Long’s job was in meteorology, to go out into the field at about 2 a.m. and test surface wind direction and speed prior to tests, as well as during or after tests. He recalled a road being closed when one cloud of chemicals drifted off base.

“I don’t have any idea where it went,” Long said about the cloud. “All we had to do was to protect our people.”

Long had his own experience with being exposed to something, he doesn’t know what, and being decontaminated afterward. He has been unsuccessful so far in getting the VA to pay for testing and treatment for his feet.

“I have no idea what I was exposed to,” Long said. “They should have let us know what we were close to.”

‘Chemical School’

Despite what went on at Dugway and the risks soldiers took during tests, at least one man isn’t claiming any related health problems.

Jerry Reed finished “Chemical School” in Alabama in 1959 near the top of his class, earning him a trip to Dugway in June 1959. He can still remember arriving.

“When they put us on that old Army bus and took us out past Saltair and down Skull Valley, I was convinced it was the end of the world and I would never go home again,” he said.

Reed, 67, contrasted growing up in rural Arkansas surrounded by green trees and waist-deep grass with coming to a “forbidding” place at Dugway.

“The NCO that met us at the main gate said, ‘We don’t worry about you going AWOL, we just watch you walk away for three days and then go out and pick you up,”‘ he said.

Reed and Anderson have stories about tests using mosquitoes and fleas. Neither man knew exactly how the insects were being used, but they guess it may have had to do with finding a way to spread chemical or biological agents.

For other tests, Reed donned a rubber suit and would decontaminate an area where animals had been exposed to nerve agent and had died within seconds or minutes. He said the animals were doused with gasoline, burned and buried in a trench.

Reed said he’s still trying to get his mind around how naive the soldiers were to allow themselves to be used as “guinea pigs.” But it was a different climate back then, he said. “I guess we just totally believed that they would not do anything that could harm us.”

Reed, who in the Army reached the rank of staff sergeant, said his “health issues” now are more related to age and weight and that he enjoyed 40 years of good health after Dugway.

“I have no ax to grind with the Army,” he said. “I am proud of my service, strange as it was.”

Gas and ‘volunteers’

Davidson, 72, of West Haven, spent about nine months at Dugway in 1961, and he remembers how so-called volunteers were chosen for tests.

“They just said, ‘You, you, you and you,”‘ Davidson said.

For one test, the former sergeant remembers everyone being lined up without gas masks in a field and being gassed by something, forced to gut it out until the gas cloud went away.

“We had to stay in it and then report back,” Davidson said. “I tried to hold my breath as long as I could. When I took a breath, it took me right to my knees.”

He isn’t sure what the gas was and didn’t dare ask back then.

“We were in the service,” Davidson said. “We just obeyed. You did what you were told to.”

When asked what health problems he has today, Davidson has to retrieve a list written on a piece of paper. Prostate cancer, kidney failure, skin cancer and congestive heart failure appear to be the worst among his maladies.

About a month ago, Davidson contacted the VA for help in paying for tests and treatments for his health conditions. But he has run into a glitch: He has been told there are no records of what sort of gas was used in 1961.

“Good grief! They used to take us out and gas us,” he said.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com

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