Jack Alderson kept quiet for decades after being ordered never to talk about the secret weapons tests he helped conduct in the Pacific, during the 1960s.
Mr Alderson, a retired Navy Reserve lieutenant commander was prompted to speak out because of sparse attendance at a 1993 reunion. There, he learnt that half of the 500 or so crew members who took part in the tests, were either dead or suffering from cancer, respiratory problems or other ailments.
That’s when Jack Alderson started wondering whether there was a link between his own skin cancer, allergies and chronic fatigue and those tests, or if they simply were the result of aging.
“I was told by my bosses and the docs and so forth that if you follow these routines … you’re going to be OK”, said Mr Alderson, 74, in an interview. “We did exactly as told. And we’re finding out now that we’re sick.”
On Thursday, Jack Alderson and other witnesses were to testify before a House Veterans Affairs panel, considering legislation that would require more Pentagon disclosure about the Cold War-era germ and chemical weapons testing and extend benefits to veterans who participated in them. Later this month, a similar bill is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The legislation is needed, say lawmakers, because the Pentagon has not acknowledged a link between the tests and health problems. As a consequence, health coverage has become difficult to get for veterans. Even though Pentagon officials say it’s tough to prove, they don’t rule out a health link.
“We cannot say that this exposure 40 years ago had absolutely no health effect”, said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, the Pentagon’s deputy director for force health protection and readiness. “I don’t think any physician would risk saying that. Because how do you prove that that’s the case?”
Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by US forces in Vietnam, started a similar debate, saying it was linked to cancer and other ailments in those exposed to it. In the late 1980s, because of the Congress’ insistence, the government extended benefits to veterans and their children, suffering from Agent Orange-related diseases.
The bill under consideration Thursday is patterned after the Agent Orange legislation.
The Associated Press obtained in advance the testimony prepared for the hearing by Bradley Mayes, the Veterans Affairs Department’s director of compensation and pensions. In the document, he calls the legislation unnecessary, “due to the lack of credible scientific and medical evidence that adequately demonstrates any statistically significant correlation” between the tests and participants’ diseases.
Last year, no specific health effects were found as a result of Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense), by the Institute of Medicine, that advises the government on medical and health matters. The report was shoddily done and left out key information, argued Mr Alderson, Thompson and others.
“It started out being a secret project and turned into being a CYA type of thing, you know, cover your rear end. And an embarrassment”, Thompson said of the tests and their aftermath.
To Jack Alderson, who lives modestly in Ferndale, California, action from Congress would be a relief. Stacks of documents decorating his home show the days where he was in charge of a fleet of five light tugboats that were sprayed with biological agents and cleaned afterward with solvents, some of which now are considered carcinogenic.
Those tests, conducted amid Cold War because Americans were concern about the Soviet Union’s weapons capabilities. Germs such as bacteria that could cause tularemia and Q fever, serious diseases more commonly found in animals, where tested by the military. They also used nonlethal simulated agents, including E. coli, now known to pose health dangers.
Experimental vaccines were given to test participants, without them being told of any risks, only that the shots were a protective measure, said Jack Alderson. Project SHAD also involved spraying service members aboard large Navy ships.
Some participants were part of the project without being fully informed, acknowledges Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, who says that safety precautions taken then were appropriate for the time.
He feel he owes that to the crews he commanded, said Mr Alderson to explain why he has pressed the Pentagon for answers about the secret tests.
In 1995, Alderson got a copy of a letter that the Navy’s medicine and surgery bureau sent to his then-congressman, Rep. Frank Riggs, stating they had no records of Project SHAD. But after continuing questioning from Riggs and Thompson, six years later, the Pentagon began to publicly release details on the existence of Project SHAD and its umbrella program, Project 112, involving distribution of nonlethal bacteria and occasionally real chemical or biological weapons.
Now, the Defence Department says that 6,440 service members took part in 50 tests under Project 112 between 1962 and 1973, including open-air tests above a half-dozen U.S. states.