It's bad enough that the Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs Administration oppose legislation intended to guarantee health care and benefits for veterans exposed to Cold War-era chemical and germ tests.
It's insult to injury, however, when Pentagon officials could not be bothered to testify in person to the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance this past week, in order to voice their objections to pending legislation. A written statement from Michael L. Dominguez, a principal deputy undersecretary of defense, said "DOD opposes this legislation. The scientific evidence does not support" it.
Lawmakers have a duty to challenge the DOD's and VA's position that there is no evidence linking any disease to service members' participation in tests of real and simulated chemical and biological agents. Thousands of service members were exposed, often without their knowledge. One affected service member, Navy Reserve Lt. Commander Jack Alderson, told committee members, "We were exposed to health hazards almost continuously."
Many service members, including Alderson, have developed cancers and respiratory problems. They believe these diseases are linked to their exposure to biological and chemical agents such as sarin and VX. The tests, conducted from 1962-73 were supposed to determine how U.S. ships would withstand assaults from chemical and biological weapons and how such weapons would disperse.
Service members were used as human guinea pigs for highly dangerous agents. For years, the DOD denied these tests occurred, but Deseret News investigations in the 1990s disclosed the tests after sailors who participated in at-sea portions of the trials asked for help. These sailors sailed through clouds of chemical and germ warfare agents. The tests were overseen by military installations in Utah.
The Pentagon now says that there is no science to support claims that service members' exposure to these agents resulted in illness, and therefore these veterans are not entitled to health care or other benefits. It is difficult for journalists to assess the science behind the Pentagon's position. But Utahns are well aware of the extreme care exercised at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility as it has destroyed part of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile. These are highly dangerous agents.
Veterans who believe their health was compromised due to exposure to these agents deserve the utmost care and consideration, the least of which is having Pentagon officials testify in person before congressional committees considering these issues.