ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Tens of thousands of American soldiers who served during World War II were used as test subjects for one of the most feared chemical weapons of the time. NPR first reported on this a couple of years ago. And now a new law will help support the men who suffered through the experiments. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The U.S. government broke a promise to thousands of World War II veterans. Some 60,000 men were exposed to mustard gas that never got the health benefits they needed. Here's one veteran, Rollins Edwards, who described NPR the day in 1944 when he and other soldiers were locked in a small room. Mustard gas and another chemical agent called lewisite were pumped in.
ROLLINS EDWARDS: That's when everybody went crazy. It just like felt you were on fire sure enough. The guys start screaming and hollering and trying to break out.
J. SHAPIRO: The military was worried that Japan would use mustard gas, which before the atomic bomb was the most dreaded weapon in the world. So the military wanted to know more about the effects of mustard gas and maybe find ways to repel it. Edwards and other African-American soldiers were selected because of a misbegotten idea that maybe dark skin was protection.
Decades later, the government admitted the experiments and promised veterans benefits. But an NPR investigation in 2015 found that the Department of Veterans Affairs did little to follow through. The VA in recent written testimony to the Senate disputed that and said it had set up a system that led to fair outcomes, a claim that angered Senator Claire McCaskill.
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CLAIRE MCCASKILL: That is a blatant lie. They have not led to fair and equitable outcomes. I'm not sure it's possible how they could make this statement since the VA has rejected 90 percent of the applicants who have applied for benefits concerning exposure to mustard gas.
J. SHAPIRO: That's the Missouri Democrat testifying in June about her bill to force the VA to find surviving test subjects and speed up their claims for benefits. The bill passed last week. The VA secretary praised it, and President Trump is expected to sign it into law. But McCaskill notes it comes too late for most of the men to get the additional VA benefits.
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MCCASKILL: They say maybe there's 400. Last year, they acknowledged there was 400 people this might apply to. Every day that passes, there are fewer.
J. SHAPIRO: The government made promises before in the 1990s to provide health benefits to some 4,000 vets who got the most exposure to the gas. But the NPR investigation found the VA reached out to just 610 veterans. The VA said it couldn't find the rest. But an NPR research librarian found more than 1,200 of them in less than two months. One problem was that during the war, the test subjects were sworn to secrecy, even threatened with prison if they told. So they didn't say anything even after they suffered from breathing problems and other lifelong health issues.
CAITLIN DICKERSON: The VA kept asking for more proof, more evidence that veterans were involved in these experiments.
J. SHAPIRO: That's Caitlin Dickerson, who reported the stories for NPR. She's now a reporter for The New York Times.
DICKERSON: But the experiments were secret. They were intentionally left off of people's military records. So that proof didn't exist.
J. SHAPIRO: Now the veterans don't need that proof. The burden of proof is on the VA. We tracked down Rollins Edwards the other day at his home in South Carolina and told them about the bill that passed. He was excited.
EDWARDS: I'm supposed to be going fishing tomorrow, but I won't be paying any attention to the fish because after all this time, I just can't quite fathom all of this. It's hard to believe. But I'm sure hoping it's true.
J. SHAPIRO: Edwards is 95. He depends upon his benefits from the VA now. He's applied for more that he thinks he's eligible for because of the mustard gas experiments. He gets oxygen from a tank to help him breathe, and his skin still itches and peels, a painful condition ever since those experiments in 1944. He keeps the skin that peels off in two clear mason jars. He's so used to being doubted that he wants to make sure there's always evidence from those secret mustard gas experiments. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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