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Lawmakers Promise To Take Action After NPR's Mustard Gas Exposure Report

This week, NPR has been reporting on World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard gas. The men were used as test subjects in secret experiments conducted by the U.S. military.

An NPR investigation found the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to keep its promise of benefits to thousands of those veterans. The reports also revealed a previously unknown set of U.S. military tests, which singled out minority servicemen by race.

NPR found evidence that black and Puerto Rican soldiers were tested on the theory that dark skinned men were more resistant to chemical weapons. And that Japanese-American troops were tested as proxies for the Japanese enemy.

Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., is a third generation Japanese-American. He says the government needs to take responsibility for what it did in these tests, which were conducted more than 70 years ago.

"It's so shocking and so, I don't know, so backwards," he says. "I think that the DOD and even our Congress needs to acknowledge that through an apology, a formal, recognition or apology and teach this in our schools."

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"There needs to be, I believe, some restitution," she says.

Clarke says she plans to lead the charge in making sure the test subjects, who by now are in their 80s and 90s, are compensated.

"We don't know what turn their lives took. Were they able to be able-bodied individuals in the workforce? How have their families suffered as a result of the exposure to mustard gas? And it's incumbent upon the VA to really get to the bottom of it," she says.

Democrat Senator Joe Donnelly also responded to the NPR reports:

"The current treatment of these veterans, who experienced unconscionable treatment during their service, is absolutely unacceptable," he says. "If there are statutory issues preventing VA from providing the care these veterans deserve, Congress needs to change the law so VA can provide treatment right away. If there are no statutory issues, the VA needs to identify the veterans affected and provide benefits without delay."

The survivors of race-based experiments are a small fraction of the 60,000 veterans who were used in World War II tests with mustard gas. Twenty-five years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs promised to help those who were permanently injured.

But the NPR investigation found the VA didn't follow through.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., is the vice-chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He says he's working on bringing in VA officials to testify, and has already requested a hearing.

"You know we're giving them the funding with regard to the benefits and we have to hold them accountable. If people aren't doing their jobs they should be fired," he says.

The VA responded to the stories in a statement saying they are prepared to assist any Veteran or survivor who contacts them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlin Dickerson is an NPR News Investigative Reporter. She tackles long-term reporting projects that reveal hidden truths about the world, and contributes to breaking news coverage on NPR's flagship programs. Her work has been honored with some of the highest awards in broadcast journalism, including a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2015, Dickerson was also a finalist for the Livingston Award.
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