Rehberg Advocates SHAD Legislation Before House Subcommittee
Montana's Congressman Denny Rehberg today testified before the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, pushing legislation he introduced with Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA), which would provide healthcare to veterans who were unknowingly subjected to biological and chemical weapons tests conducted in the 1960s and 70s.
"This is a huge step forward for the victims of these tests who've waited decades to have their case heard," said Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "Many of my House colleagues today, for the first time, had a chance to hear the details of this travesty that has flown under the radar for so long. Mike and I were proud to fight for our bill before the subcommittee."
Testifying at the hearing was Rehberg, Thompson, officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Institute of Medicine, as well as Lieutenant Commander Jack Alderson, an affected veteran and constituent of Congressman Thompson.
Project 112, which included Project SHAD, was conducted between 1963 and 1973 by the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. During these projects, a number of weapons containing chemical and biological agents such as VX nerve gas, Sarin Nerve Gas and E. Coli were tested on unknowing military personnel.
The existence of these tests was denied by the Department of Defense (DoD), despite reports from participating veterans that they were being stricken with unusual diseases. Though the DoD now acknowledges the tests took place, the Veterans Administration (VA) will not provide these veterans with health benefits and compensation for their diseases. The Rehberg-Thompson legislation would require the VA to assume the toxins used in the weapons tests caused injury to the veterans, making them eligible for medical benefits and/or compensation for their conditions.
The bill also instructs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, within 180 days of enactment, to notify all veterans of potential exposure to the biological or chemical weapons used in Project 112 and Project SHAD. A Government Accountability Office report (GAO-04-410) issued in May of 2004 concluded that a substantial number of veterans still remain unaware that tests were conducted on them.
"This legislation will help set a standard of oversight for the federal government's treatment of our soldiers," said Rehberg in his testimony. "We can't sweep the suffering of these veterans under the rug. We can fix the problem created 40 years ago, and this legislation will do that."
Statement of Congressman Denny Rehberg (MT-AL)
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
Veterans Affairs Committee
H.R. 5954 - To grant presumption of service connection to veterans of Project 112, including Project SHAD.
Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee for allowing me to testify today on my legislation, H.R. 5954, to grant presumption of service connection to veterans of Project 112, including Project SHAD.
I would also like to thank Representative Mike Thompson, who has been a tireless advocate on this issue. It has been my pleasure to work with him to bring these tests to light and fight to get Project 112/SHAD veterans the benefits they deserve.
When I was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2001, I was approached by Billings resident John Olsen. John told me a disturbing tale of a government refusing to be accountable for its actions, a long line of healthcare problems, and a lack of care.
In the early Cold War era, the Department of Defense and other federal agencies conducted a series of tests called Project 112. During these projects, a number of weapons containing chemical and biological agents such as VX nerve gas, Sarin Nerve Gas and E. Coli were tested on unknowing military personnel. John is one of the victims. Over the years, he has battled several health problems including skin cancer, prostate cancer, and an adrenal tumor the size of his fist.
Even worse, for more than 40 years the existence of these tests was denied by the Department of Defense (DoD), despite reports from participating veterans, like John, that they were being stricken with unusual diseases. During that time, many of these veterans suffered and died while their government looked the other way. Finally, in 2001, the DoD acknowledged that the tests took place. However, the Veterans Administration (VA) still wouldn't provide these veterans with health benefits and compensation for their diseases.
Instead, the VA commissioned a study which was conducted by the Institute of Medicine. Representative Thompson and I have questioned the validity of this study as it relates to the long term health effects on veterans of Project SHAD. Without going into too much detail, the study did not accurately portray the method in which these tests were conducted, and did not include sailors from the light tug boats participating in the tests and which my constituent John Olson served on. This was a deeply flawed study that should not be used as a basis to deny benefits to these veterans.
While working on this issue, I've been alarmed by the deficiency of the program for notifying Project SHAD veterans of their exposure. Due to pressure from Congress, initial search efforts began in 2000; however, they were and continue to be inadequate bordering on negligent.
Since 2003, the Department of Defense has stopped actively searching for individuals who were potentially exposed to chemical or biological substances during Project 112/SHAD. At that time, the Department of Defense reported it had identified 5,842 servicemen and estimated another 350 civilians were exposed during these tests.
Since the 2003 report to Congress an additional 598 veterans of these tests have been identified as potentially exposed. 394 were found in the June 2007 Institute of Medicine study, 165 were provided by various veterans' advocacy organizations, and another 39 were found through the Government Accountability Office's efforts. All told, since the Department of Defense stopped looking, 598 veterans have been identified, 10% of the original total. Put simply, we do not know how many more veterans may be out there.
It is a true tragedy that our government, after exposing these servicemen and women to a witch's brew of chemicals, cannot be bothered to find and notify them of such.
As I mentioned earlier, the Department of Defense did identify around 350 civilians who were potentially exposed during the course of these tests. However, to date, no effort has ever been made to notify these civilians.
H.R. 5954, in addition to the well-deserved presumption of service connection designation, would begin to draw a circle around the problem and correct it by implementing the recommendation from a February 2008 GAO report on Project SHAD. The Department of Defense must reopen its search and notification efforts, or provide an adequate cost-benefit analysis as to why not.
This legislation will help set a standard of oversight for the federal government's treatment of our soldiers. We can't sweep the suffering of these veterans under the rug. We can fix the problem created 40 years ago, and this legislation will do that.
Again, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify. And with unanimous consent I would also like to include the written statement of John Olson for the record.
Testimony of John E. Olsen, ET-2, USN
United States House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
Chairman Hall, Ranking Member Lamborn and distinguished members of the committee. My name is John E. Olsen and I live in Billings, Montana. I am a former ETN-2 (64-65) and I write to describe my experiences within the "Project SHAD Technical Staff" (PSTS).
I entered the US Navy in 196I after three years at Montana State University, including Advanced Army ROTC. After boot camp, I was assigned to ET A' school for preparation as an Electronic Technician and assignment to the fleet. In 1964 I received orders to Project SHAD Technical Staff on board the USS Granville S. Hall for LT 2085. In normal transfers an enlisted person goes to the receiving station on the coast involved. In my case that should have been "RECSTA Treasure Island" in San Francisco bay. Instead, my orders were to the "Presidio" in San Francisco. A suite in a fancy barracks, and I did not see anyone else in the building while I was there. A few days here, then transported to Treasure Island and immediately bussed to the airbase to catch a MATS flight to Pearl Harbor. The morning after arrival I was picked up by car and driven to a warehouse and told to go to an office in the back and up one flight. There I was met by a Chief Petty Officer and a Lt(jg), who I later learned was the Personnel Officer for PSTS. Our conversation hinged on the concept of war; whether the old style of breaking things and killing people or would we rather just take over an ill populace. I was told that "President Kennedy had personally believed this and he had chosen us to carry this concept into working order. We were the best at our primary jobs, could handle very well other jobs on board a ship, and we could pass the security clearance factor." Well, when our president wanted me for special work, who was I to say no! Of course I accepted the challenge. When the 2085 was tied up and the civilian crew had left, those of us already in Pearl went to the boat and met our skipper and chief engineer. Our skipper was a full Lieutenant and the Chief Engineer was a senior E-6 Engineman about twice my age. All this for a small boat, 107 feet in length and mostly black in color. (Army colors) It needs grey, but first we find out that we do not wear our Navy uniforms. Then we gather on the Granville S. Hall for a security briefing that informed us that we would not leave the base without an undercover escort, one of which we may, or may not, figure out but there would be someone else also covering us. We went out on shakedown cruises, training on seamanship, and for our job in research. Then we had firefighting training. We were brought as a crew into a classroom' setting and trained on the exposure suits and gas masks. This part of the training was filmed by an Army photo unit. Then to the G. S. Hall for shots, something special as we were only told the basics when we got them. Then decontamination of the interior of the vessel using challengers filled with betaPropilactone and formalin. I turned them on and left the area, closing the hatch behind me. After the challengers were empty they shut down and we opened the 85 and went back to our home. No one told us it was safe to re-enter the boat. We still had liquid running down the bulkheads in most of the vessel. We had sealed only the refrigerator and opened the rest of the interior to assure there were no bugs still on board. Now on to Emergency Shiphandling school where an E-4 (me), an E-6 (one of our cooks), and three officers off a submarine, a Lt Cmdr and two Lt (jg)'s made up the class taught by a Commander.
We had five LT's and six crews, we were trained for our job, but there was a President who had not been elected, but had assumed the position after the death of our beloved JFK. Volunteers were requested to keep one crew in Pearl and transfer the balance back to the fleet. I elected to stay with the unit as I had earned advancement to E-5. During the down time we put in electronic spares on each boat, cared for the vessels, and a few excursions. One was the time a Russian Trawler had need of spare parts only available in the port of Honolulu. Well, on that day, while a Geodesic Survey ship and other proper' ships of the line were in the harbor, we were out with one of the LT's equipped to spray agent, practicing our man overboard procedures. Grey harbor tug manned by people in civilian clothes with the ability to lay down a spray - and they had the long lenses and lots of film. Were we out there as bait of a sort, I so believe to this day?
Election up coming, let's get up to strength by bringing in the other new crews. Now we are back on our proper vessels getting ready again to go into research, to work. Most of the engineering crew had some experience with tugs but most of the ET's came from destroyers or large vessels. But our Weathermen came off a carrier or a shore installation, never anything as bouncy as a tug. The placard said "This vessel not to be operated on ocean or coastwise waters, signed, commandant US Coast Guard" and seemed to have validity. I do know that one time I had a roll of 65 degrees and a pitch of 40 degrees as this was what was needed to throw the gyro out of kilter, and it did. OK, after the inauguration of LBJ we were ready to start Shady Grove. This was to take place near Johnston Island and we needed to transit to that site. We left Pearl Harbor on the 21st of January.
After arrival in Johnston Island we again deConned the interior of the vessels before doing anything else. Our air group arrived, Marine A4's and the ground crews. The General paid a visit to each boat. Soon we were underway to run the initial test, and first series of trials to get us acquainted with the actual procedures. About a week out at sea then back into port for a couple days, then out to station again. The weatherman and I strapped the theodalite in and proceeded to do the wind balloons and information to control each evening, in code. Five or six days at sea then a couple days in, then back out. The testing takes much of the night, then during the day a minimum crew operates the ship to the lab ship then back to station. Minimum crew was one person on the bridge and one person in the engine room, and I had been appointed to day watch. Of course, that meant that during the tests I was asleep in the sleeping quarters, never knowing what was leaking through the filters, and going into my lungs. Our filters got everything down to 1 micron, but they were made of paper, and this was close to the ocean and there was actual seawater in the area. Salt water and paper made for paper changing its porosity, in other words, it leaked.
My morning at sea began before sunrise as I assisted the navigator in shooting the stars to determine our position after the external decon of the vessel. As the ship was opened up for day operations most of the crew went to sleep and one engineer and myself brought the vessel to the lab ship to off load the samples and get the special supplies for the next nights tests. And so it went until April when we completed "Shady Grove" and I was on my way back to Montana State University. My field of study was Electrical Engineering and Business.
By the end of my first quarter on campus I needed to get some work to keep me busy so I applied to the Electronic Research Laboratory. I started with the Digital Data Systems group where we would be working with Water Resources Research group. We developed the Snow Pack measuring devices that are put into the mountain areas of the west. And I built the prototype. After about three years of school, I finally earned a BS degree in Commerce (General Business).
Now to work, and a large construction company looks like the place to put my varied experience to work. After completing the field training I am offered a position in the purchasing department of Southwest Operations of Chicago Bridge and Iron Company. Since I had more law courses in school I was given the pleasant chore of contracting our company attorney, and one of the choices available was Leon Jaworski and Associates. Good thing he had a number of attorneys on staff as he was called to Washington, D.C., to head the Watergate investigation. As we expand operations I am handed the steel buying and before long become probably the largest single consumer of steel on the Gulf Coast of the United States. About 1975 I was given the added responsibility of managing the annual audit of SW operations, and this is the year we go from Over the Counter' to the New York Stock Exchange. About this time that I am handed one of the largest jobs I have ever had. Negotiating with and meeting the proposed supplier off and on for a few months then one morning I receive a call, then place a call to New York lasting about 10 minutes and I've spent over $10 million. I also furnished most of the steel for the last greenfield refinery built in the US.
Next was Chemtrol Corporation as the Purchasing Manager of this specialty insulation company. Fireproof and radiation proof insulation was important in the nuclear power field anywhere in the world. And we did it! I'm with the company only about a month when Three Mile Island happened, and this certainly put a crimp in our future. After less than a year I move to Sales Manager for an Electronics and Metrology Company. We handle everything from single meters to plant process control (Dow Freeport). We do temperature measuring of the GM first battery powered vehicles to clocks on the space shuttle. It is during this time that the first indication of possible troubles from SHAD arise. I'm 41 and have hypertension, but then I have a massive spasm of the heart muscle. The difference between a spasm and attack is a spasm leaves no damage to the heart muscle, even though it can kill just as dead. Very unusual as normal medications work only for a short time then fail as the pressure goes up higher that before. Soon I am again not getting paid so move back to Montana. The prognosis is not good.
I finally cannot afford medical care so end up with the VA hospital in Miles City, still trying to nail this down. Finally a sophisticated test shows a probable tumor within the body so I am sent to the Salt Lake VA Hospital where the tumor is confirmed. I am scheduled for surgery, but first I needed to be switched from the normal anti-Hypertensive to a quick acting variety when a timing fluke reared its ugly head. My blood pressure went up to over 300+/300+. The nurse told me I wasn't supposed to be there any longer, but I made it to the operating room and had an adrenal tumor removed. I did not feel, per what I had been told upon leaving SHAD, that I could tell the medical people that my internal fluids might be hazardous to their health. But I did survive this and went on to live without blood pressure problems for quite some time, but now have had a mild attack which took me to a cardiologist some two weeks after the event for one stent. Skin cancer, prostate cancer, replaced hip, arthritis , COPD, and now osteoporosis and scoliosis of the lower spine for me and only some cancer in the family history make me wonder, was it SHAD.
From the age of 41 I have been unable to find work of a nature to fit my field of study, or that would pay anywhere near the amount I had earned at the electronic sales job that I had then. If that salary were brought to the present it would be in the neighborhood of $150,000, and with that I could have some funds set aside for retirement, but the best I have done since then has been below $18,000. That's not enough to leave a nest egg.