U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill's legislation rolled into bill headed to President
Hundreds of World War II veterans the American government exposed to mustard gas for experimental purposes may soon receive needed relief from the Veterans Administration. The U.S. Senate approved the Arla Harrell Act Wednesday, Aug. 2 — named after a Missouri man who has fought the VA for years for help treating symptoms of exposure to mustard gas.
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced the legislation this year, which was then rolled into a larger House of Representatives Resolution unanimously approved by the Senate. The legislation now heads to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature.
Once signed into law by Trump, McCaskill’s legislation will:
• Require a re-examination of Arla Harrell's claim for VA benefits
• Mandate a quick review of previously denied claims
• Place the burden on the VA (instead of the veteran) to prove or disprove exposure
• Revamp the VA’s application and adjudication process in the future
• Mandate an investigation by both agencies to determine what went wrong with this process and officially acknowledge the horror these servicemen endured
Previously, the VA denied most claims related to mustard gas exposure.
“This bill says three simple words to Arla Harrell: We believe you,” McCaskill told the media during a conference call on Aug. 4.
For years, Harrell exhibited severe symptoms related to exposure to mustard gas. He was exposed at Camp Crowder near Neosho, Mo., during his time in the service in the 1940s. The U.S. government required a vow of secrecy from servicemen exposed to mustard gas for 50 years.
According to Beverly Howe, Harrell's daughter, her father didn't lead a life like other young fathers.
“He was not able to cut the grass, or play with his children,” she remembered. “He went to work and when he came home from work, all he could do was sit down.”
Howe said her father suffered a myriad of respiratory issues not remedied by a variety of medications taken over the years.
She said her father would often gasp for air following little physical exertion.
Harrell's family has appealed the VA's decision to deny his claim. If that denial stands, the new legislation could help secure relief.
McCaskill estimated 300 to 400 servicemen who experienced purposeful high levels of exposure to mustard gas during WWII are still alive and could be affected by the passage of the legislation.
She further said she hopes the VA will expedite benefits to the affected veterans shortly after the President signs the bill, which is expected.
McCaskill couldn't speculate on how much relief a veteran might see in terms of a dollar amount. All of the survivors of mustard gas exposure by the U.S. government are elderly. Many already have declining health.
Howe said her family has fought for recognition by the VA and Department of Defense since 1991, when the veil of secrecy lifted and Harrell finally told his family about the mustard gas experiments.
“This is coming about a little late, but at least he (her father, Arla Harrell) understands the government finally believes him,” she said.
McCaskill echoed Howe.
“More importantly he'll get the peace of mind late in life that his be credibility won't be challenged,” she said.
The legislation won unanimous approval in the House and Senate.
“Every once in a while, Congress gets it right,” McCaskill mused.
Reach editor Eric Dundon at firstname.lastname@example.org .