During the Second World War, the United States military orchestrated chemical weapons experiments in secret on about 40,000 American soldiers. Although the program was declassified in 1993, an ongoing investigation by Caitlin Dickerson of the NPR has divulged that the Department of Veteran Affairs only found and offered compensation to 610 victims.
Now, in an attempt to track down uncompensated survivors and their families, NPR had released its own extensive, searchable database of the 3,900 veterans exposed to mustard gas and other chemical weapons.
Although chemical weapons have been utilized in warfare for at least 1,700 years, mustard gas is a modern invention. Mustard gas first went into large-scale production during the First World War. It can cause bleeding and blistering in the respiratory system, large fluid-filled blisters and intense skin irritation, depending on how the weapon is deployed. Extreme mustard gas agent burns are fatal, and individuals who recover face chronic breathing problems as well as a higher risk of cancer.
Rollins Edwards, now 93 told Dickerson that it felt like you were on fire. As an army soldier, Edwards was exposed to mustard gas while standing inside a wooden gas chamber.
Conducted in Panama, the World War II experiments were supposed to determine how chemical weapons performed in tropical island climates. The military was looking for the ideal chemical soldier to resist possible attacks, according to Susan Smith, a medical historian. Experiments were frequently based on race. Puerto Rican and black troops were specifically exposed to examine how their skin would react. As proxies for Japanese troops, Japanese Americans were also tested.
Though the tests themselves were outrageous and shocking, what ultimately caused lawmakers to demand restitution for veterans and their families was the follow-up of the experiments – or lack thereof. The VA has realized that injured veterans deserve benefits, and with its database the NPR’s investigation aims to locate more eligible victims.
Those veterans suffered from cancer, respiratory issues and skin problems for decades, and now many of them do not trust the VA. When Dickerson interviewed a navy recruit name Harry Bollinger who participated in the mustard gas experiments, he stated that the VA refused to acknowledge its participation in the experiments, citing lack of records and regulations.