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For Veterans Mustard-Gassed In Secret Tests, Help Now Sits On President's Desk

In this 1945 image, test subjects enter a gas chamber for a U.S. military experiment that will expose them to mustard gas.
Courtesy of Edgewood Arsenal
In this 1945 image, test subjects enter a gas chamber for a U.S. military experiment that will expose them to mustard gas.

Decades after the U.S. government exposed service members to chemical weapons in secret experiments, lawmakers have advanced a measure intended to make it easier for those World War II veterans to obtain compensation. The bill, known as the Arla Harrell Act, advanced to President Trump's desk after Senate approval Wednesday.

"When a Missouri veteran is mistreated, I take it personally — and I'll take the fight to anyone, anywhere, to make it right," Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a statement, referring to the namesake of the bill she sponsored. The Missouri Democrat named the bill for one of her constituents, a veteran who says he was one of the 60,000 American test subjects exposed to mustard gas and lewisite agents by the U.S. government during the war.

"After all these years," McCaskill added, "it's frankly less about the benefits that Arla deserves, and will now receive — it's about recognizing what he sacrificed for this country, and that he and his family deserve to hear three simple words from their government. We believe you."

The move comes more than two years after an NPR investigation revealed the Department of Veterans Affairs had broken its promise to seek out and compensate those men who had incurred permanent injuries from mustard gas testing. Now declassified, that long-secret program sought to determine the effects of certain chemical weapons, often by separating the test subjects by race.

Of the 4,000 men the department had sought to locate — the men who were exposed to the most extreme experiments — officials said they found and attempted to reach only 610 in the span of more than two decades.

NPR Investigations Research Librarian Barbara Van Woerkom found roughly 1,200 individuals in the span of two months.

And among the veterans who did apply for compensation, the VA also "routinely denied claims from veterans who qualified," Caitlin Dickerson reported for NPR.

McCaskill introduced the Arla Harrell Act twice — both last year and again at the start of this year, when the new Congress gathered in January. But it was not until the measure was appended to a veterans-benefits package that it made an appreciable move forward.

Now part of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, which was passed by the Senate on Wednesday, the measure to reconsider "previously denied claims for disability compensation" now sits on Trump's desk, one signature away from becoming law.

The proposed change is similar to a 1991 law that facilitated claims by Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. In that situation, as with the secret mustard gas tests, veterans struggled to provide the VA with enough evidence to qualify for compensation.

"I'm delighted that this got passed by Congress," Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told reporters Thursday. "We are deeply appreciative of the 400 or so veterans that we believe have been waiting too long to be recognized for what they deserve. This is really what allows the VA to be able to move forward in doing the right thing."

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