Gazette opinion: Belated justice for U.S. veterans

by Billings Gazette

Fifty-three years after John Olsen was exposed to poisons during his military service, Congress and President Trump have removed the obstacle that has kept the Billings veteran from receiving disability benefits.

A measure written and championed by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, was included in the massive National Defense Authorization Act that Trump signed Tuesday. Along with the $700 billion annual military budget, the 2,247-page law directs the Department of Defense to provide the Veterans Administration otherwise classified information on certain veterans who apply for disability benefits.

The legislation was written specifically to address Olsen’s situation, but it will help thousands of other veterans whose health problems are related to military service in secret operations. Olsen was exposed repeatedly to potential biological weapons and hazardous chemicals aboard a tugboat while serving in the U.S. Navy. He applied for disability benefits 17 years ago, but the VA cannot verify his toxic exposure with DOD because the records are classified.

The provision authored by Tester and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, allows DOD to release information to the VA for the purpose of determining the veteran’s eligibility for disability benefits – so long as the release doesn’t jeopardize national security.

Project SHAD
Olsen was a 23-year-old sailor who participated in secret U.S. Navy testing of biological weapons. For many years he has had serious health problems that are very similar to those suffered by other sailors who served with him in the South Pacific while their tugboats were repeatedly sprayed with toxic agents in Project SHAD.

The sailors were ordered not to talk about Project SHAD and DOD didn’t acknowledge its existence till 2000. As recently as last year, DOD denied that any veterans’ health problems are related to SHAD.

“This is a momentous day for John Olsen and all veterans who deserve accountability,” Tester said in a news release. “Mr. Olsen and I have worked for years to get the records of his service declassified, and he will now be able to use his military records to apply for VA health care and benefits that he has fought so long for.”

Tester’s office called Olsen Tuesday shortly after Trump signed the 2018 NDAA into law.

“Finally! It’s taken a long time, but I’m happy that we’ve reached this point,” Olsen said. “I appreciate Jon Tester’s work to get my records declassified. We’ve finally gotten to the point we should have gotten to 50 years ago. There are a lot of people that will be excited to hear about this.”

Olsen participated in Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense) for several months in 1963-64. The project involved a series of tests to gauge the vulnerability of naval vessels and personnel to chemical and biological attacks. Olsen has had cancer four times, along with other life-threatening health problems.

Although U.S. law now makes Olsen’s crucial service information available to determine his eligibility, he doesn’t yet have disability benefits. We expect that Tester will stay on the case until this Montana veteran receives the compensation he deserves.

Outrageous delay
The delay in providing benefits to Project SHAD veterans is outrageous. Americans who fought for our country shouldn’t have to fight bureaucracy to get the benefits they have earned.

When Congress and presidents send U.S. troops into harm’s way they indebt our nation to these heroes. Veterans’ benefits should be what veterans need, not what tightwads on Capitol Hill feel like paying. Veterans benefits should be mandatory – not discretionary, not rationed, not delayed.