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Humboldt vet battles military for toxics data

By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, November 13, 2005
Story appeared on Page A3 of The Bee
http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/medical/story/13854326p-14694184c.html 

WASHINGTON - For 12 years between 1962 and 1974, the U.S. military conducted tests using live biological agents. Tugboats bobbing in the high seas off the Hawaiian Islands were sprayed with nerve gas and other agents and then were washed down with powerful decontaminants now suspected of being carcinogens.

Jack Alderson, 72, of Ferndale, Humboldt County, was a Navy commander during some of those tests. He has been fighting for years to get the files opened and learn whether exposure to the substances has had any lasting health consequences for the men enlisted in that top-secret testing, including himself.

Five years ago, he asked Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, for help. Thompson, a Vietnam War veteran, helped turn up the pressure on the Defense Department to release more information about the tests, and helped push a bill directing congressional auditors to look into them as well.

Last week, Alderson and Thompson teamed up again behind the introduction of legislation creating an independent commission to study the tests, track down the veterans and civilians who took part and get them tested for exposure-related disease.

"We owe it to these veterans," Thompson said.

Alderson acknowledges that the various forms of cancer he's had, including skin cancer, might not be related to Project SHAD - Shipboard Hazard and Defense. But his experience since the Veterans Affairs Department began examining SHAD veterans hasn't convinced him.

Alderson said the VA doctors concluded that his illnesses were not military connected but the result of smoking.

"They said that if I have a case against anyone, it's the tobacco industry," he said. "I'd just like to get a fair shot."

Worse yet, he said, there are thousands of other veterans and civilians involved in the tests at sea and on land who might never suspect that cancers or respiratory problems they are experiencing late in life are related to the tests, or who died at an early age not knowing why they were sick.

"Numerous people we know of who were involved in these tests have not gotten a letter informing them of their right to have a physical," Alderson said.

On June 30, 2003, the Defense Department announced it was drawing to a close its investigation of Project SHAD, which was part of a larger top-secret test program called Project 112.

The test program was ordered in 1961 by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

"The 112th initiative concerned chemical and biological warfare capabilities," the Defense Department said of the tests. "Because the Defense Department's knowledge of chemical and biological warfare agents was so limited, a testing program was critical."

According to the Defense Department, 134 operational tests were planned, but only 50 actually were carried out.

In the tests involving Alderson, nicknamed Shady Grove, light tugboats were maneuvered into position in the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii. Planes swooped down in the night and sprayed the tugs with the test substances in an effort to find out how vulnerable the Navy fleet might be to such warfare.

The test agents included Sarin and VX nerve gases, E. coli bacteria, and other substances that cause Q fever and rabbit fever.

Similar tests were conducted on land, many at Fort Greeley, Alaska, as part of the project.

After dawn, after the toxic agents were given time to decay in the sunshine, crew members emerged from their sealed quarters and scrubbed the decks with chemicals, one of which has been discovered to cause nasal tumors, stomach cancer and skin lesions in laboratory animals.

In the June 2003 announcement that it was ending its investigation, the Defense Department said it had identified 5,842 military personnel who had been involved in the tests. About 60 percent of them had been notified of their eligibility for VA testing.

"The VA is still processing over 2,400 cases but is having difficulty making notifications due to the absence of key needed information such as military service numbers," the General Accounting Office said in the report Thompson helped seek in 2002.

The GAO - now called the Government Accountability Office - generally was satisfied with the military's diligence but said many participants were missed - including some 167 personnel that GAO auditors found but the Defense Department had not.

It's not even clear that all of Project SHAD's secret tests have been identified, much less the "hundreds of other classified tests" of a similar variety that the GAO said had been conducted since World War II.

At a press conference last week, Thompson and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., announced introduction of the Veterans Right to Know Act to answer these and other questions. It would set up a 10-member commission modeled after the independent bipartisan panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A host of veterans organizations have endorsed the legislation.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to get to the bottom of this," Thompson said, adding that it's a matter of national honor that veterans who participated in the tests receive treatment and compensation for damage to their health.

Alderson and Thompson said time is of the essence. The GAO report said the VA had granted only 10 benefit claims of 316 filed as a result of Project SHAD.

Alderson knew one of those sailors, tugboat captain Gerald Forstner of Chula Vista.

"He had very severe lung cancer," Alderson said. "He got a 100 percent disability from the VA three months before he died."

About the writer:
The Bee's David Whitney can be reached at (202) 383-0004 or dwhitney@mcclatchydc.com.