Veterans fight military over '40s chemical tests

January 30, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Glynn M. Wilcox, emaciated after a forced march of 52 days as a prisoner of the German army, returned to the United States in the summer of 1945. With time left to serve, the Army machine gunner's assistant wanted to be stationed near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Mr. Wilcox, then 18, volunteered for seemingly benign tests of military clothing to protect against mustard agent and other dangerous or deadly chemical liquids. He was sent to a secret field station at Bushnell, Fla., operated by the Army Chemical Warfare Service at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

Today, Mr. Wilcox and other veterans who submitted to similar tests say trusting the government was a mistake. Some say they are still fighting an immense government bureaucracy, trying to receive proper medical treatment and disability compensation.

As news of Cold War-era radiation testing with human subjects continues to wear on the public conscience, a review of the military's well-documented use of human guinea pigs in Maryland and elsewhere to test a variety of chemicals and drugs can be no less troubling.

Since 1918, the old Edgewood Arsenal, occupying a 13,000-acre peninsula in Harford County, has been the hub of the U.S. military's research and development related to chemical warfare. Now part of Aberdeen Proving Ground, the sprawling collection of laboratories is to chemical warfare what Johns Hopkins Hospital is to medicine.

Between 1922 and 1975, more than 10,000 people, mostly military personnel, submitted to experiments at Edgewood with mustard and nerve agents, LSD and other "psychochemicals" and irritants.

The most severe chemical tests -- and the only ones for which the government has an organized compensation program for chronic injuries -- occurred in the 1940s at Edgewood and eight other sites around the country.

At the Army's Fort Detrick in Frederick, formerly under the command of Edgewood and a focal point of biological warfare research, humans have been used to test biological agents or antidotes. The work, which continues, focuses on ways to defend against a germ attack.

Officers from the now-closed Fort Holabird, an Army intelligence installation in Baltimore, collaborated with Edgewood scientists to test the use of hallucinogenic drugs during interrogations. Researchers from the University of Maryland's School of Medicine assisted Edgewood scientists in conducting separate, secret experiments into the use of such drugs in "incapacitating" weapons.

Maryland's military installations were the brain trusts of chemical and biological testing.

'Everybody got burned'

Like others subjected to World War II-era chemical tests, Mr. Wilcox, the former POW, said he was misled into thinking his government would protect him from harm, but in stead he was sworn to secrecy, cast off without any medical follow-up and forgotten about until recently.

Upon arrival at the test sites, the veterans said they were no longervolunteers, but under strict orders.

"We had absolute faith in our government," said Mr. Wilcox, now 67.

"When anybody got burned bad, they hauled them away, and we never heard from them again," Mr. Wilcox recalled. "Everybody got burned."

He said he suffers from respiratory congestion, skin rashes, a weakened immune system and other ailments. He is working with the Disabled American Veterans, a private group, and the Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain compensation for chemical injuries.

He has difficulty talking about his military days -- both his prisoner of war experience and the testing. "One is just as traumatic as the other."

But he says he is not bitter. "I consider myself a loyal American."

Other veterans, such as Nathan Schnurman of Charles City, Va., harbor more anger.

"I was used, abused, lied to and lied about," said Mr. Schnurman, 67, who "celebrated" the 50th anniversary of his first experimental exposure at Edgewood last Tuesday.

He received 100 percent disability compensation for his injuries after a 17-year battle with the government, and he continues to carry the flag for other test subjects.

His exposure to a mixture of mustard agent and Lewisite, an arsenic compound that also is a blistering chemical, seems among the more severe.

As a 17-year-old Navy seaman at the old Bainbridge Naval Training Center, near Port Deposit in Cecil County, he had volunteered to test new summer clothing. He soon found himself at an isolated section of Edgewood Arsenal.

Along with a handful of other subjects, he was told to put on protective gear from head to toe. Then he was led into a locking chamber.

"I'm being burned daily. . . . On the sixth [day], I was ill. I went to the small window on the big wooden door on the chamber. There was an intercom system. . . . I said, 'I've got to come out. Something's wrong with my suit or my mask.' "

A Navy corpsman running the test "came back on the intercom and said, 'No, you can't come out.' "

He passed out twice.

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