Thousands of Elderly WWII Vets Still Waiting for VA to Help Them After Being Exposed to Mustard Gas

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Soldier Wearing Gas Mask
Photo: Jack Delano/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

NPR reports that not only did the U.S. military use about 60,000 World War II soldiers as test subjects for mustard gas and other chemical agents, the Department of Veterans Affairs also failed to pay the thousands of veterans who were subjected to the most extreme tests after the program was declassified in the ‘90s. NPR spoke to a few dozen survivors; many have given up trying to get compensation after years of failure. Eighty-eight-year-old Harry Bollinger told them“That’s going to be on my tombstone. U.S. Navy, Guinea Pig. That won’t be too long now probably.” 

Yesterday, NPR reported that many of the experiments involving chemical agents grouped soldiers by race: “White enlisted men were used as scientific control groups. Their reactions were used to establish what was ‘normal,’ and then compared to the minority troops.”

The VA only tried to contact 610 of the around 4,000 men eligible for compensation in the past few decades. Many people NPR talked to had been diligent in filing claims with the government, only to be denied repeatedly. One person at the VA told NPR that veterans needed to offer more proof before compensation could be approved; since the program was conducted in secret, the veterans forced to endure mustard gas in locked rooms with no door handles often can only list their symptoms as proof: breathing problems, leukemia, and skin cancer. 

Meanwhile, the VA is under fire for myriad other reasons, some attributed to additional instances of the department failing to help veterans in a timely fashion, others berating the agency for failing to spend money in a non-wasteful fashion. In March, the New York Times talked to veterans’ groups and doctors to see how much had changed since the year before, when long waiting times at veterans’ hospitals prompted massive change at the agency, including a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs. “Very little has changed,” one doctor and whistle-blower told them. The Times concluded that “overhauling a federal department with almost 300,000 employees scattered across the country is a difficult and tedious process,” which means that sometimes veterans who have already been waiting decades for help will probably have to wait even longer.