The time has come. The Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs must stop dragging their feet. They must own up to the serious chemical and radioactive hazards that U.S. service members were exposed to in the line of duty. It’s not as if the health damage from such exposure expires once the mission is over.
As Arla Harrell can attest, a lifetime of suffering can follow an irresponsible sergeant’s or young lieutenant’s order to step forward and serve as a test dummy for a chemical munition.
In Harrell’s case, it was a mustard gas test conducted at Missouri’s Camp Crowder in the 1940s. Despite the best efforts of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to get legislation passed to help make Harrell and other service members whole, the Veterans Administration is fighting her.
There’s a troubling pattern here. For tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans, not to mention scores who trained in Panama, Agent Orange is the culprit for enduring problems caused by highly toxic dioxin. The VA continues to drag its feet on Agent Orange exposure claims, veterans say.
Thousands of veterans from the 1991 Persian Gulf War suffered debilitating health effects believed to result from chemical exposure in Kuwait and southern Iraq, and from reactions to untested vaccines administered to protect them from potential exposure to biological agents. The VA denied for years that Gulf War duty was the culprit.
The New York Times reported on June 20 that the Air Force doesn’t want to acknowledge responsibility for radiation exposure from cleanup of a 1966 crash in Spain of a B-52 bomber loaded with four nuclear bombs. The nuclear parts of the bombs didn’t explode, but radioactive fallout spread across the crash site.
Roughly 1,600 troops were ordered to the site but given minimal, if any, protective gear. Some had to use their bare hands to handle radioactive waste. The Air Force still won’t admit, 50 years later, that anyone was harmed in the Spain cleanup or a similar one in 1968 after a bomber crash in Thule, Greenland.
Private-sector employers must accept responsibility for dangers they expose their employees to. A mining executive went to prison this year for safety violations contributing to the deaths of 21 West Virginia miners in 2010.
The long succession of stories about veterans sickened during military service, who are repeatedly denied VA health care, strongly suggests the government views them as disposable assets. It’s as if officials prefer that the veterans would just die so their problems will go away.
Meanwhile, veterans and their families are left to grapple with medical debts often in the tens of thousands of dollars.
The VA’s and Pentagon’s constant obfuscation, evasion and runarounds are no way to treat those who selflessly answered their nation’s call to duty. Americans owe it to our veterans to speak out.