WASHINGTON – U.S. Reps. Jackie Walorski (IN-02), Kathleen Rice (NY-04), and Ryan Costello (PA-06), members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, today introduced legislation to ensure World War II veterans intentionally exposed to mustard gas receive the care and benefits they have long been denied.
“It’s bad enough that American servicemembers were exposed to mustard gas by our own military – but the fact that the VA continues to deny them the care and benefits they deserve is unacceptable,” Congresswoman Walorski said. “We have a responsibility to all those who served our nation in uniform, and it’s time we right this wrong and begin to repay the tremendous sacrifice these veterans made.”
“This is about correcting an injustice for hundreds of veterans, including several in New York, who were exposed to chemical weapons by our own government and have been denied the benefits and care they deserve for decades since,”Congresswoman Rice said. “I’m proud to join Congresswoman Walorski and Congressman Costello in this bipartisan effort, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get this legislation passed.”
“Pennsylvania’s World War II veterans proudly and courageously served their country,” Congressman Costello said. “This legislation would assist our veterans who were purposely exposed to mustard gas during their time of service by ensuring and accelerating their access to benefits from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I’m proud to cosponsor this long overdue solution for our nation’s heroes in uniform.”
“These men were horribly abused by our government seven decades ago and they haven’t even acknowledged their sacrifice or their mistreatment,” said U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (MO), daughter of a WWII veteran and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who authored the bill. “This bill is about showing them that we understand what they went through and correcting a horrible stain on our past—it’s already too late for many of them. This could be our last chance to act before it’s too late for them all.”
During World War II, the U.S. military secretly conducted chemical weapons testing on American troops, exposing 60,000 servicemembers to mustard gas or lewisite and swearing them to secrecy.
The testing was declassified in 1975, but the oath of secrecy for servicemembers was not lifted until the early 1990s. Since then, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) failed to adequately notify affected veterans of their eligibility for benefits or to provide proper treatment for the chronic and debilitating conditions that resulted from exposure to mustard agents. The VA has denied approximately 90 percent of benefits claims in the last ten years.
The Arla Harrell Act (H.R. 6096 / S. 3023) would ensure affected veterans receive the care and benefits they deserve. It would require the VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to reevaluate previously denied claims for benefits related to mustard gas or lewisite exposure, with a presumption of full-body exposure in those cases unless either agency can prove otherwise. About 800 living veterans would be eligible to have their cases reconsidered.
It would also require VA and DoD to establish a new policy for processing future benefits claims related to mustard gas exposure. The agencies also would submit reports to Congress on the testing and how many servicemembers were exposed, the high rate of benefits denials, and claims that are again denied after reconsideration.
The Arla Harrell Act, named for an affected World War II veteran from Missouri, was originally introduced in June by Senator McCaskill.
Walorski represents the 2nd Congressional District of Indiana, serving as a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, House Armed Services Committee and House Committee on Agriculture.