Pentagon - Soldiers in chemical tests not informed

Thursday, October 10, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon acknowledged Wednesday that some soldiers engaged in chemical and biological weapons testing in the 1960s may not have been fully informed about the secret experiments conducted at sea and in five states from Alaska to Florida. Some tests used the military's deadliest nerve agent, VX.

Thousands of civilians in Hawaii and Alaska also probably were unaware they were sprayed with relatively mild bacteria meant to simulate germ weapons such as anthrax, the Defense Department's top health official said.

Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, said there's no evidence anyone died as a result of the classified tests, which were part of biological and chemical warfare programs the United States abandoned in 1970.

Four people at the military's Deseret Testing Center in Utah were infected during biological weapons work, but all recovered, said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, another Pentagon health official. Records do not show who the people were or what germs infected them, Kilpatrick said.

At a news conference, the Pentagon released declassified summaries of 28 of the tests, showing for the first time the scope of open-air testing of chemical and biological agents on American soil. About 5,500 service members participated in the tests.

Tests in Alaska exposed soldiers in protective suits to deadly nerve agents, including VX, and experiments in Hawaii used a hallucinogen developed as a chemical weapon, according to Pentagon records.

Winkenwerder said all military personnel in tests of real chemical or biological weapons used protective gear and were vaccinated. But he acknowledged that the protective equipment used 40 years ago was not as effective as the suits used today.

"It's not clear that in every instance, people were fully informed" of the risks, Winkenwerder told a news conference.

At a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing, lawmakers criticized the Pentagon for waiting until last year to begin releasing details of the tests.

"It's pretty deplorable that the DOD held this info up for so long," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.

Winkenwerder said the names of the service members participating in the tests have been turned over to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has notified about 1,400 of those veterans and hopes to send out a batch of 1,000 more letters soon.

The agency has commissioned a $3 million study to determine if test participants are getting sick because of their exposure. So far, 55 veterans have filed claims with the VA blaming their health problems on their participation in chemical or biological tests.

One of them is Jack Alderson of Eureka, Calif., who participated in biological weapons tests in the Pacific as a Navy lieutenant in 1965. Alderson says he has breathing problems and other ailments that could have been caused by the chemicals used to decontaminate ships after the tests.

"This is just the start," Alderson said after Wednesday's hearing.

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