By Matt Saintsing
A bill introduced earlier this month by Sen. Claire McCaskill would expand health benefits to World War II veterans who were exposed to chemical weapons during military training, but were denied treatment by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Arla Harrell Act would protect thousands of WWII veterans by requiring the VA and the Department of Defense to review and reassess formerly denied claims for benefits due to mustard gas or lewisite exposure. It also would force the VA and Pentagon to presume a veteran’s exposure, unless it can be absolutely proved otherwise. The bill would also ensure oversight as the VA would submit any reconsidered claims that are denied to Congress every 90 days.
The secret experiments exposed thousands of U.S. service members to mustard gas or lewisite — a blister agent. It is estimated that 60,000 WWII veterans were exposed; 4,000 of which received high levels of exposure. The Pentagon kept the experiments classified until 1975. Many of the exposed veterans did not come forward until their oath of secrecy was lifted in 1991.
Only 40 veterans are currently receiving any services due to their exposure.
The bill’s namesake, 90-year-old Arla Wayne Harrell of Macon, Missouri, is a constituent of McCaskill’s who claims he was exposed to mustard gas experiments near Camp Crowder during the later years of WWII while attending basic training. He was 18 years old at the time.
He had made several claims to the VA, but was denied benefits despite the growing evidence that mustard gas experiments took place in southwest Missouri.
The bill has since gained traction as senators, veterans’ groups, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin have thrown their support behind it.
“We believe him, and we are going to act quickly as possible as we can to make sure that he is recognized and gets what he clearly deserves,” Shulkin said last week while speaking to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor.
The Arla Harrell Act has also managed to garner bipartisan support in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“I wanted to thank [Sen. Claire McCaskill] for the hard work she’s done on the issue of mustard gas and the Arla Harrell Act, which she’s worked so hard on and I’ve committed for a long time to help her with,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, has voiced his support as well.
“I too want to thank Claire for being here today, I know she’s worked very, very hard on this issue and I’ll make a commitment to you to do our level best to get this thing to the floor as soon as we can because it’s important,” he said.
Learn more about these experiments and the new legislation aimed at helping the remaining few veterans: