(Photo courtesy Edgewood Arsenal)

National commander praises chemical weapons legislation

American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt praised the U.S. Senate Aug. 3 for passing a bill that will make it easier for World War II veterans exposed to chemical weapon agents to receive VA benefits.

“It’s very unfortunate, but true, that our government conducted mustard gas and lewisite exposure tests on members of the Armed Forces during World War II,” Schmidt said. “This legislation will hold the U.S. government to its promise to care for veterans whose health has been harmed as a direct result of their honorable military service.”

The Arla Harrell Act, S. 75, addresses an unfortunate and little known chapter in American history when more than 60,000 American troops had participated in chemical weapons tests. As many as 4,000 troops were subjected to extreme, full-body exposure to chemical agents.

“Young Americans, such as Arla Harrell, were led by officers into gas chambers while a mixture of mustard gas and lewisite was piped in,” Schmidt said. “The test subjects recalled that they felt like they were on fire, with men screaming and hollering and attempting to break out. According to some accounts, as many as 60,000 enlisted men were enrolled in this secret test program.

“Because these programs were classified, doctors did not record servicemembers exposure to these extremely toxic chemicals. The 60,000 men, just like Arla Harrell, had no proof of this exposure. They received no follow-up health care. They were not monitored by doctors. Worse, these men were threatened with a dishonorable discharge and imprisonment if they spoke of the program.

“Scientists know that mustard gas damages DNA within seconds of making contact. It causes painful skin blisters and burns, and it can lead to serious and sometimes life-threatening illnesses, including leukemia, skin cancer, emphysema and asthma. Many of these men suffered in silence for decades, and this was wrong.

“ The American Legion is well aware of our nation’s checkered past with regards to government testing on human subjects. In fact, we forced the federal government to ensure Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange were able to seek care through the VA.

“When the government causes harm to servicemembers, the American people have a responsibility to make them whole, if possible. And when they cannot make them whole, we have a responsibility to mitigate their suffering and care for them.

“This is why the 2 million members of the American Legion stand with Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt and applaud their steadfast efforts in passing S.75 The Arla Harrell Act, to ensure that these veterans are properly compensated for diseases and other disabilities associated with exposure to mustard gas and lewisite. It is the right thing to do.”