Mustard gas proved toxic, with long-term health effects. And the US military determined that fact in no uncertain terms, given that 60,000 veterans of the Second World War were used as test subjects - many of them lured into the guise of guinea pig with the promise of an extra two weeks of vacation. The experiments were kept secret for decades until the records were declassified and various veterans went public with their experiences in 1990.
They’ve been trying to get benefits ever since.
Charlie Cavell, one of the mustard gas test subjects, was 19 when he volunteered. He is 88 now. In 1988, Cavell requested and received copies of his records that detailed his participation in the mustard gas evaluations. Cavell then submitted the documents to the VA as proof of his exposure.
For its part, the VA released a list of illnesses, which in its view were linked to mustard gas exposure. Those illnesses included, but were not limited to, chronic breathing problems, leukemia and skin cancer. NPR (6/23/15) notes that according to the VA, if a veteran presents with any illness on that list and provides proof of exposure, then qualification for benefits is assured.
That’s not what happened in Cavell’s case. He filed claims for several illnesses on the VA’s list of those linked to mustard gas, including skin cancer and chronic breathing problems. And yet his claims for veteran benefits were consistently denied for decades.
It wasn’t until NPR intervened and inquired to the VA on Cavell’s behalf, that his application for disabled veterans benefits was finally approved. Following the NPR inquiry, the VA suddenly announced that there was sufficient evidence to grant Cavell the VA disability he long sought. The VA, according to NPR, based the approval on the same information and evidence that had been on file with the VA for decades.
Officials with veteran affairs told NPR they can’t explain why the approval was not granted sooner.
Cavell is not the only mustard gas veteran seeking VA disability: there are well over a thousand, possibly more. NPR reports that in the 1990s the VA committed to locate at that time about 4,000 men who had been exposed to mustard gas in the most extreme fashion, and to compensate them for their ongoing injuries.
However, NPR in its investigation found that within the span of 20 years the VA had managed to reach out to just 610 men. When asked, a senior advisor for disabled veterans benefits told NPR that the agency could not find the remaining men, claiming there was no identifying information - addresses or Social Security numbers by which the VA could locate them in spite of significant efforts over the course of two decades.
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Cavell, meanwhile, after having waited decades and finally securing approval for VA compensation, was still waiting in June. The VA required that he be re-evaluated yet again before benefits could be disbursed.
In 1991, during an appearance on the CBS News program 60 Minutes, then-VA Deputy Secretary Anthony Principi said of the test subjects, “They should be praised for what they did,” Principi said on the CBS News program. “And as far as the secretary and I are concerned, we’re about to do right by them.”
Many are still waiting or have already died, with no opportunity to file a VA lawsuit…