U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is optimistic her bill to help World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas will move forward now that it has the support of President Donald Trump’s Veterans Affairs secretary.
McCaskill’s bill will enable veterans who say they were exposed to mustard gas during World War II military experiments to recover the benefits owed to them, despite the VA previously denying their health claims.
“We have fought the VA on this. We have fought people not caring enough on this, and we finally are making some progress,” McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said Wednesday, a day after Secretary of Veteran Affairs David Shulkin voiced support for her bill.
McCaskill, who has been pushing the legislation for two years, said it could pass out of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee as early as next week. “And then I’ll begin a constant harangue of my colleagues to get it up on the floor and get it passed,” she said.
Never miss a local story.
The mustard gas experiments were not declassified until 1975, and the military did not lift an oath of secrecy for servicemen until the 1990s. About 400 men who participated in the experiment are believed to still be alive, according to veterans groups that support the bill.
“These veterans have been suffering long enough,” said Carlos Fuentes, the legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who joined the senator on a call with reporters.
McCaskill said that the high burden of proof the VA has required for the mustard gas claims has made it difficult for veterans to receive their benefits, with more than 90 percent of the claims in the past 10 years denied.
McCaskill’s bill would lower the proof burden for veterans who have already filed claims, including Arla Harrell, a 90-year-old resident of Macon, Mo., and the bill’s namesake, who says he was exposed to mustard gas at Missouri’s Fort Crowder.
McCaskill called Harrell “a wonderful and loyal solider” and said that “his government is basically calling him a liar” by denying his claim.
“We have proof that mustard gas was at Camp Crowder,” she said. “ We have pictures of the vials.”