A North Carolina man's quest to learn how the military experimented on him in the 1960s has turned into a class-action lawsuit for as many as 100,000 veterans the government used to test hundreds of drugs, chemicals and biological agents over more than 50 years.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in the Northern District of California last week said the case could go ahead on behalf of any current or former service members who were subjected to chemical or biological testing without their informed consent. The government has said as many as 100,000 people were used for such testing between 1922 and 1975, when the military says it halted human experimentation.
The suit seeks to lift the oath of secrecy soldiers say they swore about what they went through, and asks the court to compel the government to provide the health care it promised subjects when they participated in the tests. It does not ask for monetary damages because the government is immune from most damage claims brought by military personnel.
Defendants in the case are the Department of Defense, the Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the CIA, which worked together to plan and conduct the tests. Representatives of the VA and the Defense Department each said they could not comment on ongoing litigation.
In the 1980s, the National Academies of Science determined that the tests caused no significant long-term physical harm, except in veterans exposed to larger doses of mustard gas, according to VA. In 2004, the NAS followed up and said veterans could suffer post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of "perceived exposure to biochemical warfare agents." The VA advises any veterans concerned about exposures during testing to contact their health care provider or local VA Environmental Health coordinator.
The plaintiffs in the case have uncovered documents that indicate veterans were exposed to mustard gas, Sarin, phosgene gas, Thorazine, LSD, amphetamines, barbiturates and other agents -- sometimes at 10 or more times known tolerances. In response to the lawsuit, the government says the experiments did not cause long-term problems. The judge in the case said the government's own documents indicate otherwise.
Subjects volunteered for the tests, but most weren't told what they were exposed to, or what the risks were, according to the lawsuit.
"This action chronicles a chilling tale of human experimentation, covert military operations, and heretofore unchecked abuses of power by our own government," the suit says.
'Used as guinea pigs'
"These people were used as cannon fodder, as guinea pigs," said Gordon Erspamer of Morrison & Foerster, a San Francisco law firm that brought the suit in January 2009 on behalf of several veterans and two organizations: Vietnam Veterans of America and Swords to Plowshares. Since the testing ended, Erspamer says, the agencies involved have resisted Congressional instructions to find the people it tested and notify them that they may have ongoing problems associated with the tests.
"The government looks at them this way: 'It's not in our interest to try to find them; it's not in our interest to treat them. It's just going to cost us money,'?" Erspamer said.
Erspamer also has represented soldiers injured by exposure to Agent Orange and has worked on behalf of veterans who were exposed to radiation during atomic testing. He agreed to take the case of the test vets after talking to Frank D. Rochelle of Jacksonville.
Rochelle grew up in Onslow County and was drafted into the Army in 1968 at age 20. He went through boot camp at Fort Bragg and was assigned to Fort Lee in Virginia, where he soon saw notices asking for volunteers to test new military uniforms and equipment. The young private, enticed by the promise of no kitchen or guard duty for the duration of the tests, volunteered and was sent to what was then called the Edgewood Arsenal, north of Baltimore.
Once at Edgewood, Rochelle says, he was told some servicemen might be given the chance to test therapeutic drugs and those who did would be given Fridays off and a medal. He says they were promised they wouldn't be harmed, that the drugs were risk-free and would be given at normal doses. Rochelle signed up.
In one experiment, he says, he got one breath of an aerosol chemical so potent that he immediately had trouble breathing and seeing. He felt dizzy and nauseous, he says, and felt as if his legs were "falling through the floor." He recalls being carried out of the room, and said, "I stayed high for two days."
During that episode, Rochelle hallucinated that animals were coming out of the walls. He thought his freckles were bugs moving under his skin and used a razor to try to cut them out.
Before Rochelle left Edgewood, he says, he was told never to discuss his experiences there with anyone. He returned to Fort Lee and later served in Vietnam before getting out of the Army in 1970.
Confusing health issues
A few years ago, Rochelle was having some health and psychological problems he couldn't explain, including high blood pressure, memory loss, eye problems and PTSD-type symptoms including nervousness, sudden bursts of anger, and problems sleeping. At the time, Rochelle was still working in a civilian job at Camp Lejeune. He has since retired.
"I started thinking, 'What has happened in my life that could be causing this?'?" Rochelle said. "I started thinking about those tests and I realized I knew nothing about the types of drugs I had taken."
Eventually, Rochelle, now 64, got his military medical records, which included information about his time at Edgewood. He now believes some of his current problems are related to a high dose of a drug he was given with properties similar to atropine, which works on the nervous system, and another drug, a powerful synthetic analogue of THC, the active component of cannabis.
Some 7,600 service members were used in experiments at Edgewood, and thousands more in testing done elsewhere, according to the lawsuit.
Erspamer says Rochelle is one of a rare few who have been able to get the VA to treat him for problems he believes are related to his time at Edgewood. Most are turned down because of the government's position that the substances given in the experiments had no harmful effects.
The whole purpose of many of the tests, Erspamer says, was to determine what doses of different drugs, chemicals or biological agents could be administered without causing death. During the Cold War years, especially, the government was searching for substances that could be used to get spies to talk during interrogations, that could incapacitate large numbers of people without killing them, allow them to be hypnotized, confuse them, lower their productivity, paralyze them or have other effects.
Like other veterans, Erspamer says, Rochelle was reluctant to tell even his own doctor that he had been involved in the tests because he had been instructed never to discuss them. Some wouldn't even tell the VA.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in San Francisco next summer.