The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2006
FEATURE
 
 

Indefensible Hazards
 

BY RICHARD CURREY

Articles published in The VVA Veteran in 2002 and 2003 introduced readers to a government research activity known as Shipboard Hazard and Defense, or SHAD. 

Those articles revealed a top-secret program designed to test chemical and biological warfare (CBW) agents during the 1960s and early 1970s. That such tests took place is no surprise, but SHAD’s legacy involves a darker wrinkle: the testing exposed our own military personnel to bacterial and chemical agents.

Today, 40 years after SHAD tests exposed U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army personnel to CBW agents, simulants, and decontamination chemicals, SHAD veterans are concerned about the long-term health effects of their exposures. Compensation claims have been consistently denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs, while the Department of Defense has followed a strategy of obfuscation and delay. And although a 1999 book, The Biology of Doom, documented the details of SHAD and a much larger covert CBW testing program, and despite SHAD hearings in the U.S. Senate, a General Accountability Office (GAO) investigation that faults DoD performance in responding to SHAD, a lawsuit that led to a U.S. District Court ruling that slammed DoD prevarications, and two SHAD bills introduced in Congress, the Pentagon continues to hedge, dodge, equivocate, and deny. But a growing coalition of SHAD veterans, veterans service organizations led by Vietnam Veterans of America, and members of Congress from both houses and parties, continues to press for answers about and accountability for the health effects of SHAD tests and the betrayed veterans who participated in those tests.

AN ALTERNATIVE TO NUCLEAR WEAPONS

SHAD was part of a DoD endeavor known as Project 112, which originated in the early 1960s during the Cold War era, a time of intense national paranoia about the Soviet threat. In responding to that perceived threat, Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, ordered a comprehensive review of all DoD activities and readiness across 150 areas of need. These 150 study areas, or “projects,” included Project 112, which McNamara directed to “consider all possible applications [of chemical and biological warfare], including as an alternative to nuclear weapons.” A central objective of Project 112 was to “prepare a plan for the development of…biological and chemical deterrent capability.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff created a program that involved all branches of the military headquartered at Fort Detrick, Maryland, along with a cadre of civilian scientists in Utah at a facility called the Deseret Test Center. SHAD, alternately an acronym for “Shipboard Hazard and Defense, Decontamination, or Detection,” involved naval detachments that conducted tests on the open ocean, mostly in the South Pacific. These were essentially “crop duster” activities, in which clouds of aerosolized CBW agents were sprayed from aircraft. One series of tests, code-named “Shady Grove,” was conducted in the Pacific near a small atoll called Johnston Island, some 700 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu.

These tests involved a group of five light tugboats which were used as sampling stations positioned on a grid as much as 25 miles apart in a downwind line, perpendicular to the flight path of the aircraft. In some of the trials, test animals—a troop of rhesus monkeys—were caged on the decks of the tugs. A Marine A4D Skyhawk attack bomber fitted with under-wing dispersal tanks took off from Johnston Island and released its load of CBW agents along a designated trajectory. The mist drifted downwind and across the tugboat positions, sometimes taking as much as eight hours to reach the fifth tug, which were stationed as far as 100 miles from the initial release point.

Jack Alderson, the officer-in-charge of the Light Tug Division, recalled, “The tugs were sprayed with both hot agents [actual disease-causing germs] and ‘simulants,’ which were live biological agents that imitated the behavior of a hot agent.” Said Alderson, “For example, a bug called BG [Bacillus globigii], a simulant which has similar characteristics to the causative agent of anthrax but does not produce deadly toxins. Tracking the dispersal and concentration of BG gave us a pretty good picture of how effectively anthrax might spread under similar conditions.”

Which, said Cmdr. Norman La Chapelle, proved to be very effective indeed. A technical operations officer, La Chapelle recalled culture plates with colony counts recorded as “TNTC”: too numerous to count. “In other words,” La Chapelle said, “dispersal from a jet traveling near the speed of sound could cover a very large territory with live agents at lethal concentrations. In that regard, the SHAD tests were very successful. What was overlooked was us, the human beings who participated in the tests.”

Did Naval officers like Alderson and La Chapelle know what they were doing?

“Yes, we did, ”Alderson said. “We understood what we were testing, and we knew there was some risk involved. But that does not relieve DoD of its consequent responsibility to SHAD veterans who might’ve been made sick by what they were exposed to out there. Nor does it mean that nobody should speak out on behalf of 12 shipmates who didn’t know what was happening and more than likely don’t know to this day.”

The passage of time and the nature of human biology render it possible that some of those men have medical problems related to SHAD exposures. “If they’re alive and need medical evaluation and treatment,” La Chapelle said, “We’d like to see that they get these services.”

Carcinogenic Clean-UP

Beyond the testing itself, a problem of potentially greater importance was the decontamination process employed after a test. “We used beta-propiolactone as a decontamination agent,” LaChapelle said. “The sailors using this chemical wore very little in the way of protective clothing, just cotton coveralls and a gas mask. When we went below decks after a decon, the chemical was literally dripping down the bulkheads.”

Beta-propiolactone has since been identified as a carcinogen that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency links to intestinal tract, liver, respiratory, and skin disorders.

After decontamination, there was the further problem of decontaminating the clothes the decon crews wore. “The guys would take off all their clothes,” Jack Alderson said, “hose each other down, take their clothes and put them in a GI can, tape the can closed, and fire off a cylinder of ethylene oxide inside the can. This was to decontaminate the clothing. The clothing would have ethylene oxide contact for about eight to ten hours, until the next day when they would take the coveralls out and use  them again.”

But, as Norm La Chapelle explained, “The problem is that ethylene oxide itself is carcinogenic.” It increases the risk of leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The retired Commander shook his head. “We were decontaminating with agents as dangerous or worse than what was being used in the tests. But we didn’t know it at the time.”

This is a critical point, according to Alderson. “It’s not that the substances we were exposed to turned out to be toxic. We didn’t know. Science didn’t know. The point is: Now we do.” With that in mind, both La Chapelle and Alderson find it both perplexing and disappointing that the Pentagon elected a policy of denial and evasion in response to legitimate queries from SHAD veterans.

“If the Pentagon had its way,” La Chapelle said, “SHAD vets would shut up and go away.”

Although the SHAD story broke in the media in the mid-1990s, a few years earlier Jack Alderson first suspected something had gone awry with veterans of the Pacific tests in which he participated. “We were pulling together a reunion, and it seemed that quite a few of our old shipmates were either dead or had serious health problems,” he said. Alderson credits another former colleague, retired Lieutenant Commander Ray Hawley, with “putting it all together.”

Alderson started writing letters, to the Department of the Navy as well as working congressional inquiries. The answers were all variations on a single theme: There were no records that SHAD had ever taken place. Alderson’s queries were deflected (“I was told to seek answers from some other agency”). He also was told there was no record he had ever served in the Pacific even though he still has the orders that dispatched him to the Project SHAD technical staff.

At another point Alderson was told his service medical record had been lost. That record was eventually found but the pages from his time in SHAD had mysteriously gone missing.

Norman La Chapelle entered the picture at a subsequent reunion, and shortly after the two men joined forces with other SHAD veterans, the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City broke the story of Project 112. Other accounts followed in newspapers across the country, and by the time The Biology of Doom was published, “the cat,” as La Chapelle said, “was out of the bag.”

Jack Alderson advised his congressional representative, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) about the long dance of redirection or flat denials. Thompson promised to look into the matter. He was dismayed by what he learned. “At first, DOD said no such tests occurred,” Thompson told a reporter from the San Francisco Daily Journal. “Then they said there were some tests, but no live agents were used. Eventually they said there actually were some live agents used.”

Thompson, a Vietnam veteran, signed on to help the SHAD veterans and led the way toward hearings and a bipartisan SHAD alliance between both houses and parties in Congress. He wrote legislation that would require a GAO investigation, exerting the pressure needed to force VA and DoD to respond. 

The VA advised Thompson the agency had requested information from DoD immediately after receiving the first SHAD claim, but hit a locked door. This led to problems back at the VA, unable to deliver heath care if a claim could not be substantiated through DoD records. Still, the VA established SHAD pages on its web site and has issued and updated advisories for its health care providers.

The DoD, facing congressional pressure as well as more queries from the VA, went about releasing its own “fact sheets.” It took a year to get three short fact sheets out. A DoD spokesman said, “We were trying to…not say anything until we really knew for sure.” Earlier denials regarding the existence of SHAD were “corrected,” as, according to the spokesman, new information was verified.

As DoD dug in its heels, the media were having a field day with the revelations of a top-secret government project that conducted CBW testing on its own citizens. In May 2000, CBS News aired a two-part investigative report on SHAD, and The Biology of Doom appeared in a new paperback edition. Nearly a hundred SHAD-related newspaper and magazine features had appeared by 2002. Late that year, a class- action suit was filed by VVA and 21 SHAD veterans in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The suit named as defendants former Secretary of Defense McNamara, DoD Under Secretary for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder, and other top DoD and VA officials. The suit contended that the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs had been violated.

FALSE STATEMENTS

Government attorneys moved immediately to dismiss the SHAD case. But Federal District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer demurred. She would hear the case, and although she elected to dismiss charges against individuals at the VA, she asked VVA and the SHAD veterans to provide additional information to support their case against personnel at DoD.

As the VVA-SHAD case moved forward, the GAO released the results of its investigation in May 2004. The report noted that DoD failed to exhaust all possible sources of information, that many potentially exposed individuals were still unidentified, and DoD (despite years of inquiries from Congress, veterans, and the VA) had not established a point of contact—a central SHAD office to coordinate the effort, verify reports, and respond to veterans.

The legislation that mandated the GAO report also called for DoD to declassify documents that would support SHAD veterans’ claims, but that mark was not satisfied either, a fact Rep. Thompson found alarming. “DoD continues to keep life-or- death information from veterans who may have been the subject of these tests,” he said. “SHAD veterans have the right to know what agents they were exposed to.” Thompson indicated a need for new legislation that would create an independent bipartisan “SHAD commission” to investigate, overcome the secrecy barrier, and bring all information regarding CBW testing to light.

Shortly after the GAO released its report, Judge Collyer dismissed the VVA-SHAD case—although less on the essential merits of the veterans’ petition than on complex legal grounds. Judge Collyer’s decision is a crystalline education on the key points of the SHAD veterans’ struggle. VVA and the SHAD veterans, she wrote, “paint…an image of a widespread and systematic cover-up of Project SHAD, including calculated efforts to conceal and withhold medical records and other information dealing with the adverse health effects of these experiments.”

When government attorneys argued that DoD’s SHAD fact sheets constituted sufficient public notification to address the complaints of SHAD veterans, Judge Collyer wrote that “this court disagrees… [DoD] disingenuously glosses over the [fact] that SHAD veterans and the VA have been seeking information on Project SHAD for decades.” DoD had an obligation, according to Judge Collyer, to provide that information, yet DoD “admits that this information is still being withheld.”

In her summation, Judge Collyer made it clear that “there is no longer any dispute: Navy and Marine personnel were used as human samplers without their knowledge during Project SHAD.” The judge, in noting DoD’s feint-and-run reaction to requests for SHAD data, observed that DoD first claimed the tests were never conducted, then later acknowledged the tests were conducted, and insisted all SHAD personnel wore adequate protective clothing. At another point DoD claimed that “no records of the tests existed,” and at yet another point that records exist “but no harmful substances were used” in the testing.

“These statements,” Judge Collyer said, “were all false.”

A NEW CHAPTER

I’ll admit the secrecy issue was a sticking point for me,” Jack Alderson said. “There were sound military reasons to classify the information about SHAD. But that was then. It’s not about secrecy anymore. It’s about decent treatment for those of us who served.”

Norm La Chapelle agreed. “We’re not looking to know everything, just what’s necessary to confirm that a veteran served in SHAD and can therefore receive whatever medical care is needed. But the Pentagon’s approach—to reveal nothing or as close to nothing as possible—disrespects the commitment of a lot of people.”

DoD’s hesitancy to open the door on SHAD may be understandable. Aside from the general issue of military secrets, full disclosure of SHAD inevitably leads to greater disclosures of Project 112, a process that could unleash a storm of public recrimination and a cascade of lawsuits. It would seem that if DoD’s motivations were, in the words of Judge Rosemary Collyer, “explicable, they were not laudable.”

Both Norm La Chapelle and Jack Alderson reiterated that SHAD veterans are not on a crusade for “every shred of information, down to every minute detail, but rather information needed to assist and support” what may well number in excess of 10,000 veterans. At this point, DoD tactics, whether overt denial or cautious acknowledgment spiked with misdirection, only continue an abdication of responsibility to veterans who could have been injured in the line of duty, many of them unaware of the risks they were exposed to.

The SHAD story moved to a hopeful new chapter on November 8, 2005, when Rep. Mike Thompson along with Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) introduced the Veterans Right to Know Commission Act of 2005. The bill calls for an independent bipartisan commission empowered to investigate Project SHAD fully. “Both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Rehberg and other colleagues from both houses of Congress believe such a commission, chartered by Congress and signed by the President, is vital for getting to the bottom of things,” said Colton Campbell, a legislative assistant on Thompson’s staff. “This commission is needed to preserve the rights of SHAD veterans. Ultimate objectives include notifying all SHAD vets so they can go to the VA and get any medical treatment that might be necessary, and possibly qualify for service-related disability compensation.”

The Thompson-Rehberg bill, H.R. 4259, calls for a commission chair appointed by the President. The vice-chair would be appointed jointly by the leadership of the Senate and House of Representatives. Both chair and vice-chair would be veterans with top security clearances. “Classified information has been a stumbling block in this process,” Campbell said. “DoD has consistently claimed they cannot release classified documents and there is no process in place to address that barrier.” Along with commission leadership, at least 30 percent of commission staffers also will have security clearances. “We want to make it possible for commission members and staff to examine all records of any kind that might bear on care and compensation for SHAD veterans,” Campbell said.

The Thompson-Rehberg bill calls for a three-year commission and an adequate budget to see the effort through to completion. At least two of the commission members would be SHAD veterans. “The bottom line,” according to Jack Alderson, “is that this is something we’ve worked toward for a long time. This commission might finally make it possible to untangle all the misinformation that’s been lobbed at us. Let’s get the story told and help out veterans who may have had their health compromised in the line of duty.

   

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