Decades after the U.S. government exposed service members to chemical weapons in secret experiments, lawmakers have advanced a measure intended to make it easier for those World War II veterans to obtain compensation. The bill, known as the Arla Harrell Act, advanced to President Trump's desk after Senate approval Wednesday.
"When a Missouri veteran is mistreated, I take it personally — and I'll take the fight to anyone, anywhere, to make it right," Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a statement, referring to the namesake of the bill she sponsored. The Missouri Democrat named the bill for one of her constituents, a veteran who says he was one of the 60,000 American test subjects exposed to mustard gas and lewisite agents by the U.S. government during the war.
"After all these years," McCaskill added, "it's frankly less about the benefits that Arla deserves, and will now receive — it's about recognizing what he sacrificed for this country, and that he and his family deserve to hear three simple words from their government. We believe you."
The move comes more than two years after an NPR investigation revealed the Department of Veterans Affairs had broken its promise to seek out and compensate those men who had incurred permanent injuries from mustard gas testing. Now declassified, that long-secret program sought to determine the effects of certain chemical weapons, often by separating the test subjects by race.
Of the 4,000 men the department had sought to locate — the men who were exposed to the most extreme experiments — officials said they found and attempted to reach only 610 in the span of more than two decades.
NPR Investigations Research Librarian Barbara Van Woerkom found roughly 1,200 individuals in the span of two months.
And among the veterans who did apply for compensation, the VA also "routinely denied claims from veterans who qualified," Caitlin Dickerson reported for NPR.