A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2001/January 2002

Hazardous Duty: The Pentagonís Secret Chemical Spraying Program

By William Triplett


DoD promised to investigate the program that used servicemen as human guinea pigs without their knowledge - In direct violation of U.S. law.

Shad exposed men in the Navy and Marine Corps to biological agents, two of which simulate the infectious profile of Anthrax.

To Homer Tack and R.J. Goin and about three hundred other sailors aboard the USS "Power", the January 1965 cruise from Florida to Newfoundland was supposed to be just another routine port-of-call mission. "All the 22 years I was in the Navy, weíd go to different ports and say here we are, this is the Navy, that kind of thing," Goin said. "We did it all the time."

No one had said to expect anything different; and indeed, when the destroyer put in to New York harbor along the way, visitors came aboard and sailors went ashore as they normally did.

However, when the ship sailed into Argentsia, Newfoundland, the only things waiting on the pier were several truckloads of sealed boxes. The crew loaded them aboard. "But we were never told what was in them," Goin said.

The "Power" then put out to sea, well into the miserable cold of the North Atlantic winter. During the next few weeks--on four and possibly more occasions--an American military jet flew over the ship. Minutes later a mist descended. "Some of us were inside the ship," Tack recalled, "but most of us were outside when the stuff came down."

All Goin knew was that some sort of test was being conducted. Heíd been ordered to go on deck into the mist with a pump-like device that collected air samples. He believes that the device and other similar equipment had been inside those boxes on the Agentsia pier, but Goin canít say for sure. This much, however, he knows: As instructed, he recorded the readings registered on the deviceís gauges and turned over the data to the officer in charge. Goin remembers collecting air samples two or three times.

Crewmen talked to each other about the mists, wondering what exactly was happening. But no one had any information. Tack said he asked the divisional officer what was going on and remembers being told, "Nothing. Nobodyís doing anything."

Before the cruise ended in late February, Tack told several of his shipmates that someday something would come out about what had just happened to them. He didnít know when or what it would be, but he was certain it would not be welcome news.

In May of 2000, 35 years after the cruise, CBS News proved Tack right when the network aired a two-part investigative report on a highly classified biological and chemical warfare program conducted by the U.S. military in the 1960s. The program was known as Shipboard Hazard and Defense, or SHAD. According to the news report, SHAD exposed men in the Navy and Marine Corps to substances including the allegedly benign and live chemical and biological agents, two of which simulate the infectious profile of anthrax.

The methods and means of exposure almost were always the same. Aircraft would release a cloud or mist of agents that would descend onto ships at sea or into their immediate, oncoming path. Sometimes men were on deck; other times they were kept inside. The ostensible purpose was to determine the vulnerability of ships to biological warfare (BW) or chemical warfare (CW) agents.

At the time, Pentagon experts considered the live agents essentially harmless to people. However, the news report noted that several substances used in SHAD later were deemed dangerous, particularly to the human respiratory system. Tack, who watched the report in his home in Pennsylvania--and who had a cancerous lung removed since his time in the Navy--called to his wife and daughter to come see what was on television.

Goin happened to catch the report in Illinois, where he now lives, and he remembered Tackís prediction. In the past three years, Goin has suffered severe bouts of pneumonia, having once been forced to go to a hospital in an ambulance. He admits his smoking "probably has something to do with" the pneumonia. But he wonders if cigarettes are the only contributing factor.

Unfortunately, he may have to keep wondering for a long time, given the Department of Defenseís response--or lack of one, some would argue--to the disclosure of Project SHAD. Despite a DoD promise to investigate the full extent and implications of a program that used servicemen as human guinea pigs without their knowledge--in direct violation of U.S. law--veterans say that the Pentagon has all but ignored their requests for help. Caught somewhere in the middle is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which must rely on a Pentagon reluctant to supply classified records that would help confirm the validity of any claims.

Vietnam veterans will recognize a pattern of governmental indifference and resistance reminiscent of treatment they received on the issue of Agent Orange. Some may find it ironic that while the government has been denouncing whoever is responsible for threatening the lives of innocent people by putting anthrax spores in the U.S. mail, veterans who had no idea their government was exposing them to dangerous BW and CW substances are left in the cold.

"Donít get me wrong," said Tack. "If they needed me for Afghanistan, Iíd be the first to volunteer. But if Afghanistan sprayed our ships like this, weíd be bombing them back into the Stone Age."

THE SHAD STORY

The story of SHAD--or at least the portion on which the Pentagon has released information--is both simple and complicated. Facts not in dispute are essentially these:

* The project ran from 1962 to about 1970 and involved about 113 separate tests, only three of which the Pentagon has publicly identified.

* Though Marine Corps and Navy personnel were used along with Navy ships and Air Force jets and pilots, the U.S. Armyís Deseret Test Center (now Dugway Proving Ground) in Utah was in charge.

* Results of most tests remain classified.

The parties involved with the SHAD issue agree on very little else, leaving a sea of concerns and contentions open to debate. First and foremost has been the DoDís handling of SHAD since the CBS News report in 2000.

The story of SHAD in general initially broke in an October 1995 newspaper article in the Salt Lake City "Deseret News". That report, based on declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, outlined a massive BW-CW testing program carried out on U.S. military ships at sea. But the article did not mention the involvement of any unwitting personnel.

It focused instead on the secrecy of the program and on how certain participants of the tests had been specially trained, equipped, and briefed ahead of time about what would happen. The veterans quoted had been sworn to secrecy about SHAD, but they were now disclosing their participation because many had since developed illnesses they suspect were related to the tests.

The CBS News report, however, zeroed in on veterans who claimed they had not been told anything about being used in any BW-CW tests. Pentagon officials immediately denied that anyone had been exposed to any dangerous substances. In a written statement the Pentagon also claimed that the men involved in the experiments "were not test subjects, but test conductors." In other words, all participants fully knew and understood what was happening.

To Eric Longabardi, who produced the report for CBS News, this has been the cornerstone of DoDís response strategy--focus attention on a comparatively small number of participants who were told in advance about the experiments, while refusing to acknowledge the possible thousands of men like Homer Tack and R.J. Goin who had no idea of what was being done to them.

Still, DoD promised a full investigation. The task fell to the Office of the Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) for Gulf War Illnesses, OSAGWI. Until then, OSAGWI was exclusively investigating the many illnesses Persian Gulf war veterans have been suffering, commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome.

Steve Robinson, a 20-year Army veteran who spent three years as a research analyst with OSAGWI until retiring last October, said the effort to gather information on SHAD began in earnest. The OSAGWI investigators, he said, "werenít your typical analysts. They were young and new to the organization, new to this task, and they did a really good job of pulling together information."

They focused on three specific SHAD tests, code-named Shady Grove, Autumn Gold, and Copper Head. "Initially we were told that the thing we should be most concerned about was the decontaminants," said Robinson, referring to substances that sailors were given to clean themselves with after the tests. "Some of them have since been identified as carcinogenic. But as we got into it we found there were many other things these guys were exposed to." That included sarin and tularemia, potentially lethal chemicals and biological agents.

According to Robinson, the priority was to identify exposed servicemen so that they could be alerted to seek VA medical attention, if necessary, for possible service-connected illnesses. From deck logs and other records, the team of investigators compiled a list of about 1,200 men whoíd been aboard the ships during the tests.

At this point, Robinson said, something happened. "Either the VA or DoD didnít want to be responsible for releasing the list of names because it would be a black eye for either agency." He said superiors in OSAGWI then took over the investigation, but did nothing with it.

OSAGWI publicly released the results of its investigation September 13, two days after the terrorist attacks. Given the mediaís almost exclusive focus on the attacks, very few articles appeared on those results. Not that there was much to report: OSAGWI had released three "Fact Sheets," essentially a bare-bones outline of each test it had researched--Autumn Gold, Shady Grove, and Copper Head.

The Fact Sheets gave the dates and locations of the three tests. Shady Grove and Autumn Gold had occurred in the Pacific, the first on the open seas and the second approximately 60 miles from Hawaii. Copper Head, which Goin and Tack unwittingly participated in, occurred in the North Atlantic winter because the Army had wanted to determine the effects of cold weather on BW-CW agents.

The sheets also listed some of the agents and decontaminants that had been used in each test, but not all of them. Named in the sheets were bacillus globigii (BG), coxiella burnetii, pasteurella tularensis, zinc cadmium sulfide, and betapropriolactone. However, a VA letter to agency doctors and clinicians dated almost one year earlier stated that CW agents sarin and VX also were used. An OSAGWI e-mail to VVA last October further revealed that escherichia coli (EC), serratia marcescens (SM), and sodium hydroxide were used.

As information on SHAD came out, DoD and OSAGWI officials have maintained that the tests posed no health threats to those who might have been exposed to any of the substances. For example, BG was the most commonly used substance because it simulates the dispersion characteristics of anthrax while possessing none of the toxicity. But by the late 1980s, an Army biologist had warned against continued spraying of BG because to say it was harmless was "patently erroneous." OSAGWI, however, continues to describe BG as "generally harmless."

The VA doesnít agree. In a letter to agency doctors and clinicians, VA Under Secretary for Health Thomas Garthwaite noted that while BG "is not normally considered to be pathogenic," it is nonetheless "associated with a number of opportunistic infections." Along with sarin, VX, and zinc cadmium sulfide, BG exposure is considered by the VA to "represent the greatest health concern."

The CBS News segment stated: "In large doses, and in rare cases, BG and related bacteria can cause pneumonia, allergic reactions, nausea and vomiting." The report quoted a former medical corpsman from the USS "Power"--the ship involved in Copper Head--saying that shortly after the spraying, the crew experienced "an upsurge of upper respiratory tract infections, colds, sore throats." The corpsman also said that since the tests, he and other ex-crewmen have suffered a range of health problems, such as chronic pneumonia, sterility, skin rashes, allergies, and kidney problems.

Similarly, SM is anything but harmless, according to Dr. Donald Fox, who worked for the U.S. Army biological warfare program in the mid-1950s. By then, the program knew that for mass annihilation via biological warfare, anthrax was an unparalleled weapon. Finding the best delivery system, though, was still in question. The Army decided to try aerosol spraying from airplanes. Like BG, SM was chosen because it, too, mimicked anthrax dissemination but was not lethal. Or so the Army thought.

In the very early hours of one morning, military aircraft blanketed a large portion of Washington, D.C., with a mist of SM. The following day, investigators from Fort Detrick, home of the Army BW program, scoured the city looking for trace evidence of the bacterium. Fox said they found it everywhere. The Army thought it had chalked up a successful secret experiment, until six months later when SM-induced respiratory infections began springing up all across Washington. Fox said "several deaths" were direct results of the experiment, which remained secret for about twenty years.

The harmlessness of coxiella burnetii is also open to dispute. Fox said Army strategists considered this agent to represent "a more humane" form of biological warfare because Q Fever, which it causes, does not usually kill people. By inducing blinding headaches, fevers, and chills and effectively prostrating people for three days, Q Fever incapacitates an enemy long enough for an attacking force to gain control of targeted territory without much resistance.

"Itís much less likely to cause death than anthrax," said Fox, but it can cause violent, if temporary, illness.

Tularemia, caused by the bacteria pasteurella tularensis, which was used in Shady Grove, "is not as potent as anthrax or smallpox, but itís not as benign as Q Fever," said Fox. For example, it is directly related to plague. "If treated early, most often people exposed to tularemia have a favorable outcome," said Fox. But, he pointed out, the Army BW program eventually discarded both tularemia and another of its cousins, brucellosis, "because itís very easy for people handling them to come down with the disease. Thereís no real vaccine or ability to protect your own people."

As for sarin, an extremely potent chemical nerve agent that is fatal in high doses, very little is needed to compromise the human nervous system. The National Academy of Scienceís Institute of Medicine concluded that there is suggestive evidence of long-term health damage from sarin exposure, including fatigue, headache, visual disturbances, asthenia, shoulder stiffness, and symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Fox said that not everyone exposed to a particular agent will always develop the associated disease. "There are certain rules of infection that determine whether someone comes down with a disease, and it varies from person to person." The variables include the virulence of the agent, the amount of the agent youíre using, and whether youíre introducing it into the body through the blood, lungs or skin. Perhaps most important is the resistance of the victim. "A vigorous, healthy 22-year-old can obviously resist lot more than can a 94-year-old woman," he noted.

A normally healthy person, however, can be more susceptible to certain infections if, at the time of exposure, he or she is on resistance-lowering drugs, or if the immune system has been compromised in any way. The only way to be sure that no one in SHAD experienced any ill effects from exposure would have been to do follow-up studies. However, both groups of SHAD veterans--those who knew in advance what was going to happen and those who had no idea--say they never received any follow-up.

They still havenít. Neither OSAGWI nor the VA has made any move toward notifying the 1,200 veterans they know participated in SHAD--most of them unwittingly--that they should have a complete evaluation of their health done.

***

Next: Why havenít SHAD veterans been notified? Has the government been as forthcoming as it claims? OSAGWI and the VA respond.

***

Veterans who served on the following ships or in the following capacities during the specified periods should contact the VA Health Benefits Service Center, toll free, at 877-222-VETS for a medical evaluation or health risk assessment.

Operation Shady Grove--January 22 through April 9, 1965

USS "Granville S. Hall"; Army light tugs 2080, 2081, 2085, 2086 and 2087; Marine Air Group 13 and First Marine Brigade.

***

Operation Autumn Gold--May 3-31, 1963

USS "Navarro", USS "Tioga County", USS "Carpenter", USS "Hoel", USS "Granville S. Hall"; Marine Air Group 13 and First Marine Brigade.

***

Operation Copper Head--January 24 through February 25, 1965 USS "Power".

   

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