After 70 years of secrecy, outright dismissal and bureaucratic stalling, the federal government may finally do right by World War II veteran Arla Harrell.
If he lives long enough, that is.
Harrell, 90, lives in a Macon, Mo., nursing home. He is one of an estimated 60,000 enlisted men exposed to mustard gas in military experiments during World War II.
In April 2016, the VA determined that just 40 soldiers had been compensated for their suffering.
Harrell isn’t one of them, at least not yet.
This is a tale of outright cowardice, but not on Harrell’s part. The blame falls on his superiors and, through the decades, the military and government officials who failed to help him.
In 1945, Harrell was 18 and an orphan, the eldest of three siblings. The young Harrell decided to join the Army, thinking that would provide a paycheck to feed his brother and sister.
He was sent to Camp Crowder in Neosho, Mo., for basic training. There he had a liquid chemical rubbed on his skin, and he was sent into a gas chamber without a mask. The chemicals burned his skin and made it hard for him to breathe.
Other men took part in experiments that sent them into fields doused with the toxin. Harrell was hospitalized at the camp and then again in Munich when he was sent overseas.
After his discharge, he faced a lifetime of pulmonary issues, skin cancers and strokes. Other exposed men suffered similar health issues.
During the experiments, the soldiers were told that if they didn’t comply, or if they ever told anyone of the mustard gas experiments, they would be court-martialed and possibly sent to Fort Leavenworth. They dutifully kept their silence.
It wasn’t until 1975 that the mustard gas experimentation was fully declassified. It took another 18 years for the military to lift the soldiers’ oath of silence.
Luckily, Harrell and other veterans like him found a champion several years ago in the form of Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who, along with her staff, began investigating cases of mustard gas exposure during World War II.
The Arla Harrell Act is the result, and it may finally force Veterans Affairs to accept the men’s claims of injury, many of them previously denied.
McCaskill’s proposed legislation would require the VA “to reconsider and make a new determination regarding each claim for disability compensation in connection with exposure to mustard gas or lewisite … during World War II.” The senator attended an appeals hearing of Harrell’s claim just this week in Washington, D.C., along with some of his family.
It wasn’t that the government didn’t know the harm that the mustard gas would cause. They knew full well. What they were testing for was how to limit its damage.
Soldiers at Army posts all across the country were subject to these experiments. The Defense Department and the VA don’t have definitive lists on who was forced to take part.
Proving individual claims is the issue.
McCaskill has flipped the script. The Arla Harrell Act lessens the veterans’ burden to prove their exposure.
That’s fair. After all, it was the government that made it virtually impossible for the men to gain approval — a result of the secrecy oath, a subsequent lack of medical records linking illnesses to the exposure and bureaucratic records that McCaskill uncovered for the May 2016 report “Cruel and Unusual Service.”
Strokes and a lifetime of ailments make it difficult for Harrell to speak, so he can’t really convey his own story. But it needs to be heard loudly and with enough conviction that Congress joins McCaskill in doing the right thing. After gaining the approval of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Arla Harrell Act has been included in the 2017 National Defense Authorization bill. That’s a start.
Time marches on. But these soldiers are still patiently waiting for the government to recognize their service and their sacrifice.