A press release from Sen. Jon Tester that I received last Tuesday held some apparent good news for a small group of veterans who have been fighting a private war against the Pentagon for three or four decades.
Tester introduced a bill in March to declassify the military service records of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances as a result of their (often unwitting) participation in top-secret missions decades ago.
Last week, he announced that the bill has been incorporated into the Senate’s version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The House version of the bill originally didn’t include the declassification language, but by the end of the week, Sen. Tester announced that the final version of the bill passed by both houses included the military-records provision.
The original Tester bill, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, is named after two veterans who suffered many years of health problems as a result of their exposure to toxic substances in Vietnam.
Gary Deloney of Kansas was exposed to Agent Orange while in the U.S. Navy from 1962 to 1965. He died while waiting for the records that would have allowed him to prove that his illness was service-connected.
John Olsen of Billings, Montana, also a Navy veteran, participated in Project SHAD, also known as the Shipboard Hazard and Defense Project, which exposed sailors to chemical and biological attacks in order to gauge their impact. In Mr. Olsen’s case, the long-term impact was severe — he has battled cancer four times.
“The records of my service during Project SHAD are still classified,” Olsen said in an earlier Tester press release. “That means that I’m not eligible for disability benefits and I can’t receive the care and benefits for being exposed to some of the most toxic carcinogens known to man. I want to thank Jon Tester for stepping up and introducing this legislation so I can get the health care I fought so hard for.”
Olsen and Deloney, of course, have not been alone in their battle to unseal the documents that would prove their claims.
Longtime readers of the Daily Inter Lake’s opinion pages will recall the name of J.B. Stone — a frequent contributor to the political debate in Flathead County in the first decade of this century.
J.B.’s pen was unfortunately silenced by ill health around 2012, but for many years before that he wrote a number of hard-hitting letters about his own experiences in the late ’60s aboard the U.S. Granville S. Hall, one of the ships that was designated to participate in Project SHAD. He was also the subject of several stories the Inter Lake wrote about his crusade for answers.
Unfortunately, his experience is cause for some hesitancy to celebrate Sen. Tester’s press release until the Defense Authorization Act is actually passed — with the relevant language included.
In a story on Veterans Day in 2005, Stone told the Inter Lake he was “encouraged by legislation announced this week that would create a 10-member independent commission to investigate” Project SHAD and a related program called Project 112.
“This is a ray of hope,” Stone said, “but it’s not anything concrete yet.”
At that point, 12 years, ago, Congress had already passed a bill to allow veterans a narrow window to sign up for no-cost medical care if they were involved in hazardous testing programs. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration used the classified nature of the records involved as a way to refuse service.
“People laughed at me when I started working on this back in 2000,” Stone told Inter Lake reporter Jim Mann. “They said it would take an act of Congress. We got the act of Congress, and now I’m trying to get an act of God to get the VA to pay attention to the act of Congress.”
In his prime, J.B. Stone had a way with words, that’s for sure. In one letter he signed off as “James Bradley Stone, Human Test Rat & Raconteur Extraordinaire.”
I’m not sure where J.B. is these days, but I know his health was bad from the first day I met him in 2000 until the last day I heard from him in 2013. In 2002, he had four heart operations, and there were many more hospitalizations in the next decade. J.B. was also convinced that his infant daughter died in 1980 from what he called “severe SHAD-related birth defects,” and he dedicated himself to doing “everything humanly possible to prevent this from happening to anyone else’s child.”
One of the things he did was write letters to the editor, to congressional offices and to the White House tirelessly challenging officials to stop talking and start acting. Sen. Tester was not immune from J.B.’s wrathful pen, and in one 2007 letter to the Inter Lake headlined “Don’t give credit until credit is due,” Stone warned against giving the senator credit for what he “wants” to do, and waiting for proven results:
“Make no mistake. I’ll be the first in line to congratulate Sen. Tester when he actually gets something done for Montana’s Project SHAD/112 veterans. Until then, I’ll tell it like it is.”
Sen. Tester may now legitimately deserve that congratulations as the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act passed in Congress on Thursday. In a letter to Sen. John McCain and others, Tester and his co-sponsors had pleaded, “We cannot wait any longer. Many who served their country are now sick or have even died… we urge you to support this amendment that will help the brave people who participated in these tests.”
Good for you, Sen. Tester. Now it’s up to the president to sign the bill.
Let’s hope that J.B. Stone, wherever he is today, and the other Project SHAD “test rats” are not disappointed again.
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.