WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs is standing by its decision to deny compensation to a handful of chronically ill Navy veterans who were subjects in poison-gas tests conducted during World War II at Edgewood Arsenal in Harford County.
The VA's review of the cases, which was to have been finished in early September, wasn't issued until Nov. 2 -- after Congress adjourned and too late for the veterans to push a bill that would compensate them $750,000 each for their health problems. The arsenal, a separate post in World War II, now is part of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., vowed to reintroduce the measure, which had been on hold pending the VA review.
"It was a political tactic," charged Nathan Schnurman of Charles City, Va., who has been pressing his claim with the VA since 1975. Schnurman was one of about 2,000 young recruits exposed to mustard gas and other toxic chemicals at the Harford County post after unwittingly volunteering to test military clothing developed for use in case of enemy chemical attack.
About 200 of the recruits, including Schnurman, Charles Cavell of Richmond, Va., William Stuck of Sarasota, Fla., and Glenn Jenkins of Nokomis, Fla., were fully exposed to the gas for extended times. Those who would benefit under Goss' bill are thought to be among the only survivors of that group who are not already being compensated for other service-related disabilities.
They volunteered for the unspecified tests in 1944. But, after learning the exact nature of the tests and being taken to the test site, a research facility, they were ordered to go through with the tests and forbidden from discussing them.
"It's difficult to tell who was the enemy in this case," said Schnurman, who went on to fight in the Pacific. "If the Japanese had done this to me, I would have been given a Purple Heart and the accolades of my government. Instead, they have made a mockery of it."
VA spokeswoman Linda Stalvey dismissed charges that the agency's report was delayed to stifle the veterans' chances for legislative relief in the 1990 congressional session. The staff's estimate of how long it would take to review the cases was just "a little shy," she said.
Schnurman's claim centers on repeated heart attacks and other circulatory problems that are common maladies among the surviving veterans most exposed to the gas. Other conditions commonly linked to the gas exposure include skin cancer and nerve disorders.
In a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Edward Derwinski, Goss said he was "disappointed by the apparent lack of understanding" shown by the department. Noting that the veterans had for 30 years or more obeyed their orders to keep silent, Goss took issue with the VA view that the veterans failed to receive subsequent medical treatment and tests that could positively link their illness to the gas exposure.
"I firmly believe the government has an obligation to these men, who served loyally and faithfully to defend their country -- not only while entering gas chambers for tests of lethal chemical weapons, but also for the decades after discharge when they continued to obey orders of secrecy about those tests," Goss wrote.
VA officials opposed Goss' bill at a July hearing on the matter, arguing that it singles out some veterans for special treatment after their claims were rejected through the standard review process. Such legislation is discriminatory to other veterans whose claims have been rejected for one reason or another, they said.
At the hearing, the VA officials lacked the specific information to comment directly on the claims of those victims named in Goss' bill, but they promised to respond in 60 days with a report reviewing the individual claims and reassessing the reasons for their denial.
The current report found "no error . . . with the way these cases have been handled." Stalvey said the veterans are "entitled to their opinions as to what the hold-up was. It was just a matter of making sure the review went through the whole process and was properly done."
Schnurman said the VA report, which marks more than a dozen claims rejections he's received from the agency, leaves Goss' bill as virtually the veterans' only hope.
"I hope we live long enough to someday see the benefits," he said.