American service members who were exposed to toxic mustard gas during secret testing by the U.S. military during World War II have developed severe physiological ailments. An NPR investigation found the Department of Veterans Affairs has not lived up to a promise to compensate the 4,000 men subjected to the most extreme tests. Here is the story of a Pasco County man who says he was exposed and is not getting medical treatment from the government.
John Tedesco and his wife share a home in San Antonio Florida, north of Tampa. He is nearly 90 years old but he remembers many of the specifics about joining the Navy. He waited until his 17th birthday and went down to the recruiting station with about 20 of his classmates to sign up. Tedesco said the details of mustard gas testing are a little fuzzy after all these years.
“I don’t hardly remember anything. But I remember we were mustard gassed. The next day at noon we had to go to our barracks. They had a couple of doctors and corps men checked us. They did that for about a week and then we didn’t hear from them anymore. They kept it secret, really. But they told us they mustard gassed us.”
The military denied the experiments until 1991. After the story broke, Tedesco got a call from a friend to join several military buddies to see what could be done. But after going through all the red tape he’s still waiting.
“We filled out all these forms and went up to the Vet’s hospital the next day and the following day they did all kinds of tests on us. So, when we got done they said we’ll let you know. They never did let me know. I never heard nothing from them.”
Eleven years later John Tedesco received a letter from a friend who was suffering from mustard gas poisoning at a VA hospital up north. This friend encouraged Tedesco to get himself checked out at a VA clinic here in Florida. Tedesco said he was denied benefits despite his medical exams and the military’s acknowledgment.
“He filled the form out and he said I’ll send it in but it will take at least a year before you hear from them. I said, OK. So, a year later, right to the day almost, I got a letter saying we refuse your claim. If you want to doing anything; get an attorney or do this and that. I told my wife; no, I’ve been fighting them for so long.”
But the recent NPR investigation found Tedesco is not alone in being denied benefits. In an email, Bruce Clisby a management analyst at the Saint Petersburg Veterans Administration Regional Office, wrote, “I am not aware of any policies or special instructions for processing claims based on mustard gas exposure specifically.” That office and the James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital in Tampa were unable to comment on Tedesco’s case because of patient privacy laws. Florida senator Bill Nelson said the VA is defying a government order by not treating these veterans and victims of secret military mustard gas experiments.
“There is a directive in the VA that those that were exposed to mustard gas…and we were exposing our own troops in experiments to mustard gas to see what the effect was in case we encountered this with the Germans and the Japanese in the war. So, when they’ve been exposed like that, this nation has a responsibility to take care of those folks.”
Senator Nelson is a senior member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. Nelson says he is determined to get to the bottom of the matter – that the victims of the secret mustard gas experiments on World War II personnel should be compensated.
“Mustard gas (and) the experiments on our own troops has caused illness and sickness. And we have an obligation to take care of it. So, if somebody is not getting treatment that was exposed to mustard gas back in World War II, I want to know about it.”
Mustard gas victim John Tedesco thinks the VA can sometimes feel like a heartless bureaucratic machine. Tedesco was tested for hearing loss a few years ago and even though he has been married since 1948 he was granted benefits based only on what a bachelor would receive. It took 2 years to clear that up. Tedesco said he’s afraid to request mustard gas benefits.
“they said we have no record of it (marriage). So, I sent them a copy of our birth certificate and everything. It took about 2 years before I got her (wife) as a dependent. And now I get $917 a month. That’s why I don’t want to hurt what I’m getting because, I’ll tell ya, it really comes in handy.”
The NPR investigation found that the VA has only attempted to reach 610 of the 4,000 test subjects who were injured.