Arla Harrell, a 90-year-old Missouri veteran who was intentionally exposed to mustard gas during World War II, has been awarded his backdated benefits from the VA, following a decades-long fight and legislation from US Senator Claire McCaskill on behalf of Mr. Harrell and his fellow service members.
The VA's decision cited McCaskill's legislation, and her testimony on the family's behalf, in the awarding of Mr. Harrell's benefits.
McCaskill testified in July at Mr. Harrell's Veterans Affairs claim appeals hearing after the VA's repeated denial of his benefits-asking the judge to take a careful look at his case and grant him the right to hear that his government believes him.
"I couldn't be more thrilled for Arla and his family, that after so many decades being told 'no', so many claims denied, so many bureaucrats refusing to believe he had been mistreated by his own government-the VA is finally saying 'yes'" said McCaskill, herself the daughter of a World War II veteran, and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. "This law, that so many folks put party aside to pass, is already getting results: long-overdue justice and the simple recognition of what Arla and so many of his fellow soldiers, sacrificed for their country. And three simple words that the government should have said to Arla decades ago, 'we believe you.'"
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey greets Senator Claire McCaskill (right). Photo from SecDef Flickr.
In August, President Trump signed McCaskill's Arla Harrell Act into law after it was approved by the Senate, capping a two-year battle and paving the way for decades-overdue relief to veterans intentionally exposed to mustard gas.
As the document granting Mr. Harrell's claim states, the reversal comes after McCaskill, who is listed as a witness for Mr. Harrell, passed her legislation. "During the pendency of the Veteran's appeal, the President of the United States... signed legislation [the Arla Harrell Act] that directs the VA to reconsider previously denied claims for disability compensation for veterans who allege full-body exposure to nitrogen mustard gas, sulfur mustard gas, or Lewisite during World War II... [ Arla Harrell's claims] will be reconsidered in light of this new legislation."
During World War II, thousands of US servicemen were exposed to mustard agents through secret US military experiments. By the end of the war, 60,000 servicemen had been human subjects in the military's chemical defense research program, with an estimated 4,000 of them receiving high levels of exposure to mustard agents.
For decades, these servicemen were under explicit orders not to discuss their toxic exposure with their doctors or even their families. The US military did not fully acknowledge its role in the testing program until the last of the experiments was declassified in 1975. The military did not lift the oath of secrecy until the early 1990s.
Alra Harrell. Photo from the Harrell family via St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Following her investigative report, McCaskill battled what she called a "decades-long record of ineptitude and failure" at the VA, and enlisted the support of Republican and Democratic colleagues, including Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Congresswoman Jackie Walorski of Indiana, who introduced companion legislation in the US House.
McCaskill also rallied veterans service organizations in support of her bill, and successfully pressured President Trump's Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in support of the legislation.
The law required a re-examination of Arla Harrell's claim for VA benefits, and the inclusion of Camp Crowder on the list of sites where full body testing took place. It also mandates a quick review of previously denied claims, places the burden on the VA (instead of the veteran) to prove or disprove exposure, revamps the VA's application and adjudication process in the future, and mandates an investigation by both agencies to determine what went wrong with this process and officially acknowledge the horror these servicemen endured.