WORLD/NATION


Pentagon Slow To Aid Troops In Secret Tests
Veterans Say They Became Sick Because Of 1960s Experiments

December 24, 2001
By THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, Courant Staff Writer

Four months after the Pentagon acknowledged that thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines might have been exposed to dangerous chemical or biological agents during top-secret tests in the 1960s, only a fraction of those possibly affected have been identified and none has been contacted.

The secret tests, which took place aboard ships primarily in the Pacific Ocean, have been the subject of complaints by a handful of veterans for more than a decade. Their concerns arose after military reunions at which the veterans discovered that some of their shipmates were sick and that more than 100 had died.

The U.S. Defense Department began investigating the 1960s-era military files 13 months ago. That was after CBS News and several congressmen stirred up a controversy over the secret U.S. military history of biological and chemical spraying of U.S. Navy and Marine vessels near Hawaii and California.

Neither the Pentagon nor federal health officials have written any of the veterans to let them know what they were sprayed with. Federal health officials are preparing to send out notices to a fraction of them. Veterans' advocates say military and health officials are too slow to assist veterans who could be seriously ill and without financial resources.

Health care costs are not an issue for 65-year-old Gerald Foster, a retired Navy veteran of more the 23 years service, but he'd still like to know whether weapons testing contributed to the rare immune disorder that crippled his lungs.

The Pearl Harbor-based light tug that Foster skippered from 1964 to 1966 was among several vessels sprayed with simulated and real chemical and biological agents from U.S. aircraft above.

Foster said his crew was protected during the spraying, by wearing chemical suits and masks. Caged monkeys were the test subjects. Foster said he believes the sailors became sick from the toxic chemicals used to clean the tugs after the spraying.

Foster has suffered for 12 years from an unusual disorder, he said. He walks around breathing heavily with the assistance of a supplemental oxygen tank. His health care is provided at no cost by the Naval retirement community where he lives.

But Foster said he knows of others involved in the operations who now have cancer and other diseases who aren't as well cared for.

"All of us should have been monitored and we were not," he said. "The crew, these are our people, and we needed to take care of them and that was not done. That was just wrong."

Vietnam Veterans of America has complained to U.S. Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Anthony J. Principi about the delay in notification. U.S. Rep. Michael Thompson, D-Calif., has pressed defense department officials to explain how far their investigation has reached into military archives.

"Rep. Thompson is very discouraged that it has taken this long to get information to the veterans," said Mandy Kenney, Thompson's spokeswoman. She said that after meeting with department officials last week, Thompson hopes the information will be sent out in January.

Rick Weidman, director of government relations for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said the continuing delay in notifying veterans of their hazardous exposures "betrays an attitude toward the veterans that we encounter elsewhere with women and minorities."

"This can be characterized as a set of ugly attitudes and prejudices that some of us have started to call `vetism,'" he said. Principi has been cooperative, said Weidman, but the VA supervisors below him have dragged out the process.

Only three test exercises have been identified by the defense department so far. Weidman said that as many as 10,000 personnel could have been involved in tests during the 1960s. The defense department, however, has identified only 1,100 service members, using the military files on the operations. The ultimate potential number of veterans exposed to the hazards could be much higher; the defense department says it is investigating beyond those three projects — into approximately 110, all told.

Spokesmen for Veterans Affairs and the defense department said delays in contacting veterans are due to long arduous searches through paper files and difficulties in locating their Social Security numbers.

“We anticipate providing information on five to six tests in the next month or so and five or six more shortly thereafter,” said Austin Camacho, a spokesman for the defense department's Deployment Health Support Directorate. He said the process of searching files was so time-consuming that there is no estimate of when the inquiry will be finished.

Barbara Goodno, a spokeswoman for the defense department, said the task of notifying veterans was assigned to health officials because they are responsible for retired service members. She said the department has given the VA all the information found so far on those exposed to the hazards.

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