WASHINGTON — The federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has granted only 6 percent of health claims filed by veterans of secret Cold War chemical and germ warfare tests conducted by the Pentagon, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press.
Veterans advocates called the number appallingly low.
By comparison, about 88 percent of processed claims from Gulf War vets were granted as of last year, according to VA documents. More than 90 percent of processed claims from Iraq and Afghanistan vets were granted as of earlier this year.
In a statement, the VA said it was “incorrect” to make such comparisons because of the unique circumstances of different groups of veterans.
The VA noted that most of the veterans of the chemical and germ tests ended their service more than three decades ago, and a study by the advisory Institute of Medicine — dismissed by veterans as shoddily done — found no clear connection between the tests and the cancer, respiratory illnesses and other problems the veterans are now having.
During the tests, thousands of service members were exposed, often without their knowledge, to real and simulated chemical and biological agents, including sarin and VX.
The tests were conducted at sea and above a half-dozen U.S. states from 1962-1973 to see how U.S. ships would withstand chemical and germ assaults and how such weapons would disperse.
The Defense Department says 6,440 service members took part in the experiments called Project 112 and Project SHAD, and 4,438 veterans have been notified of their participation. Others could not be located or have died.
As of May, the VA had processed 641 claims filed by veterans of the tests. Thirty-nine of the claims were granted, 56 were pending and 546 were denied.
The AP obtained the figures from the VA last Thursday following a congressional hearing on the issue earlier this month.
“These numbers are shocking, disgraceful and disappointing and reflect poorly on VA,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.
“This is ridiculous,” said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “These guys were there. They all have cancer. Take care of them.”
The VA’s statement said that some of the SHAD/112 veterans who filed claims were already getting benefits for other service-connected conditions.
“The service of most of these veterans ended more than 30 years ago, and their service medical records do not reflect treatment for currently claimed conditions,” the statement said.
Filner’s committee last week held a hearing on legislation by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., that would grant coverage to project veterans without them having to prove a link between their problems and their participation in Projects SHAD/112.
The bill is patterned after legislation passed in 1991 to help people exposed to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by U.S. forces in Vietnam that was linked to cancer and other ailments.
Filner said he hoped to vote the bill out of his committee by July 4.
The VA and Pentagon both oppose the bill, arguing that there’s no clear scientific evidence supporting a need for it.
The Pentagon only began to disclose details of the tests publicly in 2001 after pressure from veterans and lawmakers. Two years later, defense officials stopped looking for additional project participants, despite criticism from the Government Accountability Office, which said untold numbers of veterans and civilians could remain unaware of their potential exposure.