Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, North America

POLITICS: Veterans Say Pentagon Still Covering Up Weapons Tests

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Oct 30 2002 (IPS) - The U.S. Defence Department gave them cryptic names like ‘Fearless Johnny’, ‘Errand Boy’ and ‘Rapid Tan’. But Jack Alderson, then a 31-year-old Navy lieutenant, knew the tests were part of a biological weapons project.

He and his men had been deployed in five tugboats to remote Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean to take part in an operation dubbed Autumn Gold. For weeks, they would head out to sea as jets screamed by overhead, releasing a misty cloud of chemicals.

”We would line up on the grid and get sprayed,” Alderson testified to a Congressional committee 40 years later.

”We would leave the test subjects (rhesus monkeys) outside in cages while the crew were inside in the citadel. We had filters for the air coming inside, but we knew, because we had accumulators in the interior, that we had leaks. We did get agents inside..”

Autumn Gold, it turns out, involved a bacteria called bacillus globigii, which the Defence Department (DoD) says is harmless to humans. The way BG disperses in the air simulates more deadly pathogens, and it is often used as a stand-in for anthrax in studies.

Other ships were sprayed with far more deadly agents, like VX and Sarin gas. VX, the Pentagon acknowledges, is one of the most dangerous chemicals ever created. Sarin gas gained notoriety in 1995, when an obscure Japanese cult released it in Tokyo’s subway system during the morning rush hour, killing 12 people.

For decades, the DoD suppressed the tests, collectively known as Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defence). In recent months, after intensive lobbying by veterans like Alderson and some members of Congress, the DoD admitted it had carried out live chemical and biological weapons experiments in the 1960s and ’70s.

Land-based tests were conducted in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Utah, Canada and England. Sea-based tests were carried out off the coast of California, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Altogether, 113 tests were planned, although the DoD says many were cancelled. It has released brief ”fact sheets” on 37 of the tests, and is still investigating others. The Pentagon has notified about 1,400 servicemen about their involvement in SHAD, which lasted from 1962 to 1973.

Government officials insist that SHAD participants were given appropriate protective clothing, and say there is no evidence that anyone – military or civilian – was sickened by the tests.

”The purpose of these operational tests was to test equipment, procedures, military tactics, etc., and to learn more about biological and chemical agents,” said William Winkenwerder, assistant defence secretary for health affairs.

”The tests were not conducted to evaluate the effects of dangerous agents on people,” he emphasised.

Alderson is sceptical about this explanation. ”The rhesus monkeys were put in cages exterior to the vessel, not inside any citadel,” he said. ”If you were going to test the protective capabilities of a ship, you wouldn’t put your test subjects on the exterior.”

Some veterans groups believe the Pentagon is still dragging its feet in disclosing all the details of the tests.

”SHAD veterans were unwitting participants in these tests,” said Rick Weidman, director of government relations for the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). ”DoD continues to withhold the evidence needed by these veterans to meet the burden of proof that VA (the Veterans Administration) requires for care and compensation.”

”At VVA, we have a phrase to describe this phenomenon: the disposable soldier syndrome,” Weidman said. ”This pattern has repeated itself over and over again. Consider the plight of military personnel and veterans concerning the effects of gas in WWI; radiation in WWII; Agent Orange in Vietnam; toxic exposures in the Persian Gulf.”

Weidman is pushing for the creation of an independent National Institute of Veterans Health, under the National Institutes of Health, that would be empowered to investigate controversial Pentagon operations like SHAD.

California Congressman Mike Thompson, who helped lead the long fight to get the SHAD records opened, has also introduced legislation to declassify information on other Cold War era weapons tests dubbed Project 112.

”The Department of Defence has not only subjected our own soldiers to dangerous substances, it may have our civilians it is charged with protecting at risk,” said Thompson. ”It is appalling that 40 years have passed and our veterans are just now receiving this information that may be vital to their health and well-being.”

The DoD says it will continue to release details of the SHAD tests as they become available, with a completion date estimated for June 2003. But some feel the Pentagon lacks a sense of urgency in notifying servicemen about what they were exposed to.

”One of the reasons that we want the sailors of Project SHAD looked at is there is no way that somebody today would consider something that happened 35 years ago the cause of health problems today,” said Alderson, who himself suffers from skin and prostate cancer.

According to Veterans Administration documents obtained by the VVA, the mortality rate from respiratory and brain disease among SHAD participants is three times the expected rate.

”I come from a rural area of Northern California,” Alderson said. ”There is no way that a doctor in Humbolt County is going to recognise symptoms of some of the things that we were exposed to. He would not know what to look for. He just wouldn’t recognise it. He would be looking for something else.”

 
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Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, North America

POLITICS: Veterans Say Pentagon Still Covering Up Weapons Tests

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Oct 30 2002 (IPS) - The U.S. Defence Department gave them cryptic names like ‘Fearless Johnny’, ‘Errand Boy’ and ‘Rapid Tan’. But Jack Alderson, then a 31-year-old Navy lieutenant, knew the tests were part of a biological weapons project.
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