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Veterans Used In Secret Experiments Sue Military For Answers

Historic images from the Naval Research Laboratory depict results of a test subject who was exposed to mustard gas.
Naval Research Laboratory
Historic images from the Naval Research Laboratory depict results of a test subject who was exposed to mustard gas.

American service members used in chemical and biological testing have some questions: What exactly were they exposed to? And how is it affecting their health?

Tens of thousands of troops were used in testing conducted by the U.S. military between 1922 and 1975. As one Army scientist explained, the military wanted to learn how to induce symptoms such as "fear, panic, hysteria, and hallucinations" in enemy soldiers. Recruitment was done on a volunteer basis, but the details of the testing and associated risks were often withheld from those who signed up.

Many of the veterans who served as test subjects have since died. But today, those who are still alive are part of a class action lawsuit against the Army. If they're successful, the Army will have to explain to anyone who was used in testing exactly what substances they were given and any known risks. The Army would also have to provide those veterans with health care for any illnesses that result, in whole or in part, from the testing.

The law firm representing the veterans estimates at least 70,000 troops were used in the testing, including World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas, whom NPR reported on earlier this summer.

Bill Blazinski has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which he thinks may have been caused by the military tests. He was 20 years old when he volunteered in 1968.

"There would be a guaranteed three-day pass every weekend unless you had a test," he says. "There would be no kitchen police duties, no guard duties. And it sounded like a pretty good duty."

What sounded more like a vacation than military duty quickly changed, he says. In one test, doctors said they would inject him with an agent and its antidote back to back.

"We were placed in individual padded cells. And you know the nurse left and I'm looking at this padded wall and I knew it was solid but all of a sudden started fluttering like a flag does up on a flag pole," he recalls.

To learn about what substances made him hallucinate, in 2006, Blazinski requested the original test documents under the Freedom of Information Act. "It showed an experimental antidote for nerve agent poisoning with known side effects, and another drug designed to reverse the effects of the first," he says.

Researchers kept information about which agents they were administering from test subjects to avoid influencing the test results. A lawyer representing the veterans, Ben Patterson of the law firm Morrison and Foerster, says that's a problem.

"They don't know what they were exposed to. You know, some of these substances were only referred to by code names," Patterson says.

Code names such as CAR 302668. That's one of the agents, records show, that researchers injected into Frank Rochelle in 1968.

During one test, Rochelle remembers that the freckles on his arms and legs appeared to be moving. Thinking bugs had crawled under his skin, he tried using a razor blade from his shaving kit to cut them out. After that test, he says he hallucinated for 40 hours.

"There were animals coming out of the walls," he says. "I saw a huge rabbit and he was solid white with red eyes."

In 1975, the Army's chief of medical research admitted to Congress that he didn't have the funding to monitor test subjects' health after they went through the experiments. Since then, the military says it has ended all chemical and biological testing.

Test subjects like Rochelle say that's not enough.

"We were assured that everything that went on inside the clinic, we were going to be under 100 percent observation; they were going to do nothing to harm us," he says. "And also we were sure that we would be taken care of afterwards if anything happened. Instead we were left to hang out to dry."

The Department of Justice is representing the Army in the case and declined to comment for this story. In June, an appeals court ruled in favor of the veterans. On Friday, the Army filed for a rehearing.

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Caitlin Dickerson is an NPR News Investigative Reporter. She tackles long-term reporting projects that reveal hidden truths about the world, and contributes to breaking news coverage on NPR's flagship programs. Her work has been honored with some of the highest awards in broadcast journalism, including a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2015, Dickerson was also a finalist for the Livingston Award.