WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs is reconsidering its decision to deny compensation to a handful of chronically ill Navy veterans who were subjects for military tests of poisonous gas during World War II at Edgewood Arsenal.
The VA, in an apparent turnaround in its attitude toward the veterans' disability claims, will re-examine all available scientific material on the tested gases in search of a possible link to the veterans' circulatory, respiratory and nervous disorders, Deputy Secretary Anthony Principi told a congressional panel last week.
The VA has repeatedly denied the veterans' service-connected disability payments, saying their maladies are not among those traditionally linked to exposure to mustard gas and lewisite, both chemical warfare agents.
Principi also invited the veterans, who are seeking $750,000 each in compensation through a bill introduced by Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., to undergo thorough physical exams at VA hospitals. Those evaluations, coupled with the new research into the effects of the gas exposure, will further determine whether the veterans have a valid claim, he said.
"I cannot change the testing procedures of 25 years ago," Principi said. "I cannot create the kind of medical follow-up that might have made this hearing unnecessary.
I can, however, influence the future. . . . We don't want to take the position that the door is shut."
The hearing, conducted before the House Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Governmental Relations, was the most encouraging reception the veterans' claims have received yet from the VA.
"We've hit the donkey over the head with a two-by-four and gotten its attention," Goss said. "Now, we have to hitch the donkey to the cart and get it to move where we want it to go."
Goss and several of the veterans who attended the session were frustrated that the VA's modified position went no further than a call for more studies.
Last year, the VA responded to Goss' bill with a promise to study the problem, but didn't finish its review until the congressional session -- and the veterans' chances for relief in that session -- had expired.
"It's more of the same," said Glenn Jenkins, of Nokomis, Fla. "They've had the records for 45 years . . . I'm not holding my breath."
Jenkins and the three other subjects of the bill -- William Stuck of Sarasota, Fla., and two Virginians, Nathan Schnurman of Charles City, and Charles Cavell of Richmond -- were among about 2,000 young recruits exposed to mustard gas and other chemical warfare agents tested by the military in the mid-1940s.
About 200 of those recruits, who unwittingly volunteered to test summer-weight military clothing, were exposed fully to the gas for extended periods, which in some cases caused nausea, burns and loss of consciousness. The chemical test site at Edgewood Arsenal has since been incorporated into the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Acknowledging that the few surviving subjects of the tests are in ill health and quite old, Principi promised to expedite the new research, which is being done by the National Academy of
Sciences. He vowed to have results in no longer than four to five months.