For 12 Years VA Failed to Contact WWII Veterans Exposed to Chemical Wafare Agents
U.S. seeks out vets in chemical tests
BY DAVID ZEMAN
DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
February 18, 2005
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it will begin mailing letters within two weeks to thousands of veterans and military workers exposed to toxic chemicals during World War II and will invite them to seek disability benefits.
VETERANS’ STORY Read the Free Press special report, “Duty, honor, betrayal: How U.S. turned its back on poisoned WWII vets” online at www.freep.com/specials In addition, VA officials said, the agency will set up a hotline for veterans or their survivors to call if they were exposed to dangerous levels of mustard gas, lewisite or other chemicals.
The VA announcement follows a Free Press series in November that revealed how the agency had not delivered on a 1993 promise to Congress to contact World War II veterans involved in secret chemical testing, warn them of known health risks and invite them to file claims.
The newspaper’s investigation found that the VA did not send a single letter, or place a single phone call, to the veterans — an untold number of whom died or were sickened by various cancers, lung, eye or respiratory illnesses linked to the chemicals. The agency relied instead on public-service ads that most veterans never saw.
“I think it’s a positive thing, and I don’t think it would have happened if it had not been for your work, quite frankly,” U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, said Thursday in reaction to the VA’s plans.
Strickland, a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, urged the VA to act quickly in a letter last week to new VA Secretary Jim Nicholson. When Nicholson appeared before his committee Wednesday, Strickland pleaded with him to “reach out to find these individuals and to provide them with the assistance that I believe this country wants and should provide to them.”
It remains unclear how many veterans exposed to chemicals are still alive or can be located six decades after the war ended.
Renee Szybala, director of the VA’s compensation and pension service, said Thursday that the agency is culling a U.S. Department of Defense database of about 4,500 veterans who took part in secret chemical tests beginning in 1942. The database also includes the names of 1,800 civilian and contract workers exposed to toxins in the manufacturing or transportation of chemical weapons, a list the VA said it will pass on to the U.S. Department of Labor to handle any benefit claims.
The Defense Department database was first provided to the VA in 1997 and then apparently disappeared, for reasons that nobody at the VA has been able to explain. Szybala, who was not working on the project then, conceded Thursday, “We lost a lot of records.”
In the next week or so, Szybala said, defense records will be matched with those in databases at the VA, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Social Security Administration to obtain updated addresses. For those names that can’t be matched, Szybala said, the VA will pursue leads through private credit-reporting agencies.
Szybala said letters will be mailed as names are matched, and that the VA hoped to process the list by spring. Benefits will range from roughly $400 to $2,200 a month, depending on the degree of disability.
The Free Press series chronicled the travails of the 1st Chemical Casual Company, an Army unit of 100 men who were among more than 4,000 soldiers or sailors deliberately injured in secret gas chamber and field tests designed to help scientists study ways to protect troops from chemical attacks. More than 60,000 troops also were exposed to lower-level testing of chemical agents. The recruits were misled about the health risks and threatened with court-martial if they disclosed the tests to anyone. Many carried the secret to their graves.
Florence Wolfson of Farmington said the VA’s actions might convince her to file a claim on behalf of her husband, Sidney, a veteran who died Nov. 29 after decades of illness.
“I’ve got the papers; maybe I should get on with it,” she said. “If anything happens, OK.”
The Free Press will publish information about the hotline and other details when they become available later this month.
Contact DAVID ZEMAN at 313-222-6593 or firstname.lastname@example.org