Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) was recognized Friday, Nov. 1, for his dedication to helping service members, who were subjected to toxic chemicals in the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) secret chemical weapon tests, receive the medical care and disability compensation they need in conjunction with service-related health issues.
Former senior Navy officer and Cal Maritime graduate Jack Alderson, who initially brought the issues to Thompson’s attention, presented the Cal Maritime award. Thompson represents California’s Fifth Congressional District, serving all or part of Contra Costa, Lake, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties.
“It is an honor to be recognized with this award,” Thompson said, adding, “but I didn’t do it (help the veterans) for an award, I did it because it was the right thing to do. These folks were abandoned after battle.”
In 1998, Alderson contacted Thompson, who he knew through his work in the Humboldt Harbor District, and told him about a top-secret DOD project he and numerous colleagues had been a part of in the 1960s. The project, under the umbrella of military work known as Project 112, was created under President John F. Kennedy during the Cold War to improve the military’s knowledge of and tactics using chemical weapons.
“These were the first air hot tests of chemical weapons,” Alderson said.
Alderson told Thompson how, at the age of 31 and in his ninth year in the Navy, he and hundreds of other colleagues who were also seasoned sailors, received orders to be part of this classified Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD) on unincorporated Johnston Island, nearly 800 miles south of Hawaii. Alderson and his men received “extensive” training and spent three months testing chemical weapons in the environment and on monkeys in the Pacific. The weapons were sprayed aerially onto barges, which were observed and maintained by crews on nearby tugboats. Although the crews were never directly sprayed, they came into close contact with the monkeys and the sprayed areas in routine clean up and upkeep operations. The only protective gear they wore, Alderson recalls, was gas masks, rubber booties and gloves, and coveralls.
For 40 years, DOD denied Project SHAD even existed. In 2002, DOD admitted that between 1962 and 1974 it tested harmful chemical and biological weapons by spraying them on ships and sailors in Project 112, which included Project SHAD, and exposed at least 6,000 service members (without their knowledge) to things like Vx nerve gas, sarin nerve gas, E. coli, Francisella tularensis bacteria and Bacillus bacteria.
When Alderson first came to Thompson, he informed him that everybody under his command, including himself, had become sick, plagued with cancer and respiratory problems and could not receive help under their veterans benefits because the government would not acknowledge project SHAD happened, let alone that the testing had caused serious medical issues for those who worked in the testing area. Alderson says he has so many cancers that he “can’t remember their names or numbers,” including prostate cancer and malignant melanoma. His lungs are also riddled with asbestos.
When his office started investigating, according to Thompson, he found out that the Pentagon had been lying for 40 years, not only about the existence of the project, but what the soldiers were exposed to.
“They (the service members working on SHAD) thought they were being sprayed with simulants, but we found out they were actually being sprayed with the real deal,” Thompson said, calling the operation “Draconian.”
“They exposed our U.S. service members to dangerous chemicals that have subsequently caused them serious medical problems,” Thompson said. “What we want done is to make sure everybody who was exposed gets notified and will be able to get medical help.”
Congress contracted the independent Institute of Medicine to conduct a study of health effects associated with chemicals used in Project 112 and Project SHAD. The study determined that there were no long-term health effects directly linked to SHAD. In October 2008, Thompson and Alderson testified in front of Congress about Project SHAD, and about the medical conditions that Alderson and his peers suffer from today, and found out that the vaccinations crews were given to protect them from biological weapons and chemical weapons were never tested by the Federal Drug Administration. “You can’t even vaccinate to protect against a chemical weapon,” Alderson said, adding when he found out, it was the first time he felt like a test subject.
Numerous reports from other government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that long-term exposure to the chemicals used in SHAD do have disastrous health effects. The IOM study was deemed inaccurate, as it did not take into account the level of exposure to specific agents and failed to account for the duties assigned to crewmembers.
In 2010, Congress passed a provision, co-authored by Thompson, that requires the Veterans Affairs administration to conduct another study with IOM to examine the health impact of SHAD.
In the last year, Alderson has undergone major heart surgery and receives cancer treatment at his local VA clinic every two months. He says without the benefits from the VA, he would not be able to afford treatment without using Medicare.
Alderson hopes the government will honor the laws set forth at Nuremburg and not order soldiers to work in hazardous conditions, but rather ask for their participation and dutifully inform them of all risks associated with their participation. “I would have volunteered because I took my duty seriously, but I wish I would have known and been informed,” he said.
Alderson is grateful for Thompson’s help and says that it is because of Thompson’s determination and unwillingness to drop the issue that he and so many of his peers can receive medical care in the wake of illness after SHAD.
For Thompson, it is Alderson who is the real hero, not just for serving his country, but for his continuous work on exposing Project SHAD and for his commitment to caring for the men he worked with and who served under him.
Thompson said he will not stop working on securing health care for the men who worked on Project SHAD until they are all receiving stable, secure help.He is currently working with Congress to conduct a second study by IOM on health issues related to the project, which will be finished in 2014.
“We have to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again,” Thompson said. “When brave men and women sign up to serve their country they may face an enemy, but they should never feel threatened by their own government.”