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

February 2002/March 2002

ACCESS DENIED

HOW THE PENTAGON AND THE VA TRIED TO CONCEAL BIOLOGICAL TESTS

 

BY WILLIAM TRIPLETT  


The previous issue of The VVA Veteran reported on Project SHAD--Shipboard Hazard and Defense--the U.S. military's secret series of 113 separate chemical and biological warfare tests conducted at sea in the 1960s. Some veterans of those tests have since developed illnesses they believe may be the result of exposure to either biological or chemical agents, or to decontaminants that were later determined to be harmful to human health. However, until the spring of 2000, when CBS News aired a two-part investigation of the project, the Department of Defense never officially acknowledged that SHAD had taken place.
    
In replying to the news report, which focused on three specific SHAD tests, DoD claimed that all personnel who'd been involved had been fully briefed and informed about the project ahead of time, and that no one had been exposed to harmful substances. Yet, while some veterans have agreed they were indeed briefed and informed as DoD claimed, the vast majority of veterans appear never to have been told a thing--before, during, or after the tests. Moreover, outside experts and at least one Army biological weapons specialist have said that several of the substances used in the three tests are indeed toxic to human health, particularly the respiratory system.
    
The Pentagon promised a full investigation and gave the task to DoD's Office of
the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI). On September 13,
2001, two days after the terrorist attacks against the United States, OSAGWI
publicly released three "Fact Sheets"--essentially outlines of the three tests. An
estimated 1,200 veterans were determined to have been exposed to biological
and chemical substances during the tests. Perhaps 300 may have known in
advance they were part of a secret test, but some 900 did not--and possibly still
don't. OSAGWI gave no indication that it intended to notify those 900 veterans
that they may have service-connected illnesses and should seek VA medical
evaluations.
    
Exactly why OSAGWI--and to some extent the VA--have not moved to notify
those veterans (and the likely thousands of unwitting veterans of the 110 other
SHAD tests) is the subject of this concluding look at Project SHAD.

The VA Prepares Itself

Project SHAD first received high-level attention at the Department of Veterans
Affairs in late 1997, when a former participant filed a claim based on his belief
that some of his health problems were related to exposure to substances used in
the tests. According to information that the office of VA Secretary Anthony
Principi provided specifically to VVA, the agency responded quickly.

     VA representatives met with officials from the Department of Defense to obtain military records that would help adjudicate the claim. But the DoD officials said that all SHAD materials were classified: Requests for documents only could be considered on a case-by-case basis, and only personnel with the appropriate
security clearance could make requests. Even then, they said, there was no
guarantee that access would be granted.

     Fortunately for the veteran, the VA was able to confirm and grant his claim
without consulting classified information.

     Three years later, however, following the CBS News broadcasts about SHAD, and prompted by a congressman trying to help SHAD veterans, the VA began a formal effort to get information on the project. Anticipating a potentially large number of claims, the agency needed to prepare itself.
     In August 2000, Acting Secretary Hershel W. Gober wrote DoD asking for details about SHAD. He wanted to know exactly it was, when it occurred, what was involved, and who was involved. Three weeks later the Pentagon replied,
providing no answers to any of Gober's specific questions. Instead, it said, the
VA should narrow its request to individual veterans' cases. In other words, DoD
would continue to deny general, open access to SHAD data.
     In a meeting the following month with officials from the VA Compensation and
Pension Service and congressional staff members involved with veterans affairs,
DoD officials stated that it would take at least two years to declassify records on
SHAD. Gober then appealed directly to Defense Secretary William Cohen. As a result, DoD agreed to establish a database of SHAD information, which could be declassified in less time. The Pentagon designated the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) as the action agency for developing and maintaining the database.
     As OSAGWI researchers began identifying, locating, and declassifying records on SHAD in various archives in Washington and the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a debate started within the VA about what the agency should do next. Specifically, should the VA notify SHAD veterans that they may have been exposed to toxic substances which could cause long-term health problems, and then establish a nationwide registry? The VA already had
established registries for Agent Orange, Gulf War illnesses, and for troops who'd
been in the area of two known chemical releases during the Gulf War.
     According to internal e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in the fall of 2000 a VA official drafted a proposal suggesting the agency should do essentially the same things for SHAD. But Susan H. Mather, the VA's chief public health and environmental hazards officer, opposed the idea, writing that the proposal "gets awfully close to another Registry, and I don't think we want to go there." (The e-mail, otherwise heavily redacted by VA officials, gives no indication as to Mather's reasons for not wanting a registry.)
     Instead of directly notifying veterans, the VA opted to send out an Information
Letter (IL) to all VA medical centers and all field offices of the Veterans Benefits
Administration. The letter, dated December 1, 2000, gave an overview of the
three SHAD tests, which were code-named Autumn Gold, Shady Grove, and
Copperhead. OSAGWI had only given the VA information on these three.
     The letter advised that, should a veteran walk in saying he believes he is
suffering from SHAD-related exposures, VA clinicians were to obtain a thorough
medical and military history of the veteran and then conduct "a basic medical
examination, along with appropriate laboratory tests that relate to the veteran's
complaints and medical findings."

     The veteran was also to be told that the examination did not constitute the filing
of a claim, and that if he wanted to do so, he should contact the appropriate VA
office.
     Throughout spring, fall and most of summer of 2001, OSAGWI continued its
research into records on SHAD. OSAGWI eventually gave the VA the names
and service numbers of 1,149 servicemen who had participated in Autumn Gold,
Shady Grove, and Copperhead. The VA then began trying to locate the veterans
and determine how many were still alive. But there was still no plan to notify the
veterans.
     After releasing the three Fact Sheets on Autumn Gold, Shady Grove and
Copperhead last September, OSAGWI officials promised to keep researching
the remaining 110 tests that were conducted as part of SHAD. As information
became available, officials promised, they would disclose it publicly and
promptly.


Official Action & Inaction

Some observers, however, have maintained that the government's response,
particularly the Pentagon's, to the SHAD disclosure has been deliberately slow
and tepid. Veterans such as Homer Tack, who'd been an unwitting participant in
Copperhead, have been trying to get information from the Pentagon on SHAD
since the CBS News report aired in 2000. Tack says he was promised he would
be sent information as soon as it became available but has yet to receive any of
the Fact Sheets.
     Jack Alderson, a veteran of the Shady Grove test, started trying to get
information from the Pentagon in 1994. Alderson had been one of the small
group of participants who'd been briefed in advance about SHAD. Part of that
briefing required participants to accept a lifelong vow of total secrecy, which he
says he maintained. But by the early 90s he noticed that other SHAD
participants "had died of lung problems and some have lung problems now, and
there are a lot of cancers, too," he said.
     Alderson seemed to fit the profile that DoD claimed it would respond to: an
individual veteran who could specify his dates of service. But Alderson says that when he began making inquiries, he "was told [SHAD] never occurred. They
told me I hadn't even been there." He was also told, he said, that his service
medical records were missing. "Eventually they found them, but the records
from the time I was in Shady Grove were missing." The records never were found.
     Even OSAGWI's good faith on behalf of veterans has been questioned by at
least one former OSAGWI member. Steve Robinson, who worked for OSAGWI
before retiring from a 20-year Army career, says that the researchers working on
finding information on SHAD did "an excellent job." Trouble began, he said,
when the researchers developed a list of names of SHAD participants in the
three tests. Discussion then arose among senior OSAGWI officials over whether
to notify these veterans of possible ill-health effects from their exposures, and
whether OSAGWI or the VA should do the notifying. Neither agency wanted to
do it, Robinson says, because it risked turning into a public relations disaster.
     Indeed, an OSAGWI e-mail dated October 23, 2000, to the VA's Susan Mather reveals that Bernard Rostker, then the head of OSAGWI, was worried that the VA's Information Letter to VA medical centers and clinics, still in draft form at the time, might give the impression "that the live chemical agents were used on every test." Rostker wanted changes to reduce the "risk" of misunderstanding,
the e-mail said. Some, however, have interpreted this as an attempt at preemptive damage control.
     There's also the question of OSAGWI's timing on the release of the three Fact
Sheets on September 13, two days after the terrorist attacks against the United
States, which the media were focusing on almost to the exclusion of all else.
Minutes of a SHAD meeting between OSAGWI and VA officials and later e-mails between some of the meeting participants show that almost one year earlier--in October 2000--OSAGWI researchers had already unearthed the vast majority of information that went into the Fact Sheets. But OSAGWI would not release the information to veterans' service organizations (VSOs) for another 11 months.
     In a meeting with VSO representatives last November, Michael Kilpatrick of
OSAGWI said that SHAD veterans who had been exposed only to simulants--i.e., benign agents--probably would not be notified. But anyone who'd been
exposed to a live agent would "definitely" be notified. The limited notification,
Kilpatrick said, was a strategy to avoid "unnecessarily alarming" veterans at
large. Yet, no veterans have been notified to date.
     Not that certain VA officials haven't pushed for notification. An October 19,
2001, e-mail states that Ron Henke, director of VA's Compensation and Pension
Service, wanted an outreach plan on his desk by close of business the previous
day. "We have created one," wrote the e-mail's author, a senior C&P official.
But FOIA officials blacked out the rest of the e-mail, leaving open the question of
what happened to the plan.
     The VA's most significant recent action concerning SHAD has been the issuing
of a second Information Letter to VA medical centers and clinics. The December
31, 2001, letter contained additional information that VA medical staff should be
aware of regarding possible health matters related to SHAD. However, while
noting that b-propriolactone was among the decontaminants used in the tests,
the letter failed to point out that research has since shown the substance to be
both carcinogenic and mutagenic.
      Primarily for these reasons, VVA and other observers believe that on the issue of SHAD, at key levels inside both the Department of Defense (through the office of OSAGWI) and the VA, senior managers are trying to downplay any health risks to veterans.
     The stakes for the federal government are understandably high: With possibly as many as 10,000 veterans exposed to toxic substances in the 113 separate
SHAD tests, the VA could be facing a deluge of claims. But the government also
has a legal responsibility to take care of any health problems veterans developed
as a result of their service to country. Hence, some veterans' call for the VA to
notify all SHAD veterans so that they can go to a VA medical facility for a
thorough examination.
     "What person, when he gets sick today, is going to relate that sickness to
something that happened to him 35 years ago?" asked Alderson. His question is
most poignant in regard to those veterans who did not --and still do not--know
they were participating in a hazardous experiment.
     According to Austin Camacho, an OSAGWI public affairs official, now that all
SHAD veterans are no longer on active duty, any effort to notify them directly
"would fall under the purview of the VA. But we are trying hard to work as a
team with them on this, and we stand ready to share information with individual
veterans who may have questions." Camacho said veterans could reach
OSAGWI by calling 800-497-6261.
     As for why it took OSAGWI almost a year to release the three Fact Sheets,
Camacho said: "A lot that we thought was right turned out to be wrong, and we
wanted to be sure the information was correct." Citing previous "missteps" that
DoD made in initially denying that any U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical
releases during the Persian Gulf war, Camacho said, "We were trying to learn
from mistakes and not say anything until we really knew for sure."

     The denials on chemical releases, he said, were made based on early, preliminary information that was later superseded by more accurate information. The 11-month delay on issuing the Fact Sheets "was all about verifying the information."
     Was the September 13 release date intended to take advantage of the fact that
the world's attention was riveted on the terrorist attacks? "I can understand why
someone might think that," Camacho said. "But it had nothing to do with the
timing of the release." He added that the task of gathering information on SHAD
is a difficult one. "One of the greatest challenges is locating the records. The
tests were developed and executed by [multiple] service organizations, some of
which no longer exist."
     On January 31 of this year OSAGWI released three more Fact Sheets on three other SHAD tests, code-named Scarlet Sage, Eager Belle I, and Eager Belle II. In each test the tracer element used was bacillus globigii (BG), which simulates the attack profile of anthrax but without the lethality. However, by the late 1980s, a U.S. Army biologist had warned against continued use of BG in tests because it was "patently erroneous" to claim the agent was harmless. The new Fact Sheets raise the number of potentially exposed veterans upward of 3,000. But in private correspondence with VVA, DoD officials have acknowledged that at least one aircraft carrier was used in a test--meaning that additional 2,500 or more veterans may have exposed.
     In a meeting with veterans' service organizations last month, VA Acting
Undersecretary for Health Fran Murphy promised that the agency would revise its
December 31, 2001 Information Letter to include mention of b-propriolactone as
a known carcinogen and mutagen. However, the VA continues to maintain that
there is no evidence that SHAD veterans have suffered any ill health effects from
their exposure, despite the fact that some veterans have already filed SHAD-related claims and that the agency has done no longitudinal health studies of
SHAD veterans.

     If veterans still doubt the government's public declarations to do the right thing
regarding SHAD, it's not only because Vietnam and Gulf War veterans have
had to wage long fights for recognition of certain service-related illnesses.
During World War II, the Army conducted secret tests in which U.S. servicemen
were exposed to mustard gas and other chemical warfare agents. The Pentagon
characterized participants as "volunteers"--who, it turned out, were never told the
true nature of the tests until it was too late to do anything about it, who had to
take a vow of secrecy that involved imprisonment if violated, and who were never
given any follow-up health care or even an examination.
     For almost 50 years, the Pentagon did not acknowledge those tests occurred,
but in the late 1980s media reports began to surface. When the VA initially tried
to get information from the Pentagon about the tests because veterans were
starting to seek compensation, DoD officials said the records were classified.
The VA ended up granting some WWII claims, but not many--25 out of 200.
One of the VA officials involved in defining the standard of proof at the time was
Mather, then the agency's assistant chief medical director for environmental
medicine.
     Eventually the National Academy of Sciences created a panel to investigate both DoD's and the VA's overall responses to the veterans' claims. In January 1991, the panel issued a scathing report that criticized both agencies for avoiding their responsibilities. "There can be no question that some veterans, who served our country with honor and at great personal cost, were mistreated twice," the report stated. "First, in the secret testing, and second, by the official denials that lasted for decades."
     So far, the government's response to SHAD is looking eerily similar.

Veterans who served on the following ships during the specified periods should
contact VVA at 800-882-1316 or by e-mail at
shad@vva.org.

 

Operation Scarlet Sage
February 9 March 4, 1966
 USS Herbert J. Thomas

 

Operation Eager Belle I
January March, 1963
 USS George Eastman

 

Operation Eager Belle II
February March, 1963
 USS George Eastman, USS Granville S. Hall,
 USS Carpenter, USS Navarro, USS Tioga County.

 

 

   


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