Guest opinion: Tester aims to help Project SHAD veterans

by John Olsen, Billings Gazette

Most people know what Agent Orange is and have heard about the toxic chemicals at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. But there are other cases like this that are lesser known. There are many veterans, like me, who were exposed to dangerous chemicals as we served our country. And today, years later, we aren’t just fighting life-threatening diseases, we are fighting a government who refuses to honor our sacrifice.

I’m a veteran of the U.S. Navy. In the line of duty, my fellow crew members and our ship were part of Project SHAD to test the effects of biological and chemical agents. We were given dozens of immunizations and our ship was bombarded with hazardous chemicals.

After the tests, we cleaned the ship using more hazardous chemicals. For decades, the Defense Department refused to admit that they even did the tests on us. My fellow SHAD veterans and I fought for recognition, medical care and benefits. Finally, in 2001 the government admitted to the existence of Project SHAD.

But our fight didn’t stop there. The records of my service during Project SHAD are still classified. That means that I’m not eligible for VA benefits related to my service exposures and I can’t receive the health care I need for being exposed to some of the most toxic carcinogens known to man. I have had cancer four times – twice internally and twice on my skin. I have applied for VA health care several times but get routinely denied because the Defense Department refuses to declassify my records of service.

I am of the opinion that each person who contributed to the knowledge gained from these tests should be provided with knowledgeable medical care. But the Defense Department is standing in the way.

That’s why I reached out to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for help. Once he heard about this unfair treatment, he wrote to the secretary of defense to ask him to declassify my records. Then he wrote a bill so that other veterans in situations like mine can use their service records to get the health care they need.

Tester’s bill, the Gary Deloney and John Olsen Toxic Exposure Declassification Act, will let veterans like me get the care we earned for our service to our nation. I want to thank Jon for fighting for Montana’s veterans and fighting to right this wrong.

John Olsen served on Project SHAD Technical Staff from 1963 to 1965. Now 76, he lives in Billings.