Fifty-three years ago, Vida native John Olsen spent three months aboard a U.S. Navy tugboat in the South Pacific as part of a secret U.S. military chemical and biological weapons testing program.
After being honorably discharged, Olsen returned to Montana, earned a business degree from Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University Billings), and worked as a manager — until he started getting sick. Between 1981 and the present, Olsen has suffered a series of severe and sometimes life-threatening illnesses, including five bouts of cancer, extreme high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Over the years, Olsen learned that some of his fellow sailors had similar illnesses, but they had been warned not to talk to anyone about what they did in equatorial waters back in 1963-64.
"We've got all kinds of problems, breathing and blood problems and cancers," Olsen said in a recent interview at his Billings Heights home.
Finally, in 2000, the U.S. Department of Defense publicly acknowledged Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense), a series of tests in which U.S. military personnel were exposed to chemical and biological weapons and required to clean their ships with highly carcinogenic chemicals. SHAD was part of the larger Project 112 run out of a Utah military base from 1963 to 1974. It involved both land and shipboard testing of chemical and biological weapons.
As recently as last year, the DOD insisted that there was no proof that Project SHAD caused health problems for the sailors and Marines who participated. An Institute of Medicine report reached that conclusion, but the authors also said that their requests for additional information were denied by DOD because SHAD data remains classified.
Olsen, who became unable to hold management jobs due to his poor health, has received medical care at the VA. But he and other Project SHAD veterans have been denied VA disability benefits because they are denied access to their service records, which are still classified by the Pentagon.
Righting a wrong
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., aim to help veterans like Olsen get the benefits they earned and have been denied for decades.
The senators introduced the Gary Deloney and John Olsen Toxic Exposure Declassification Act that now awaits a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Deloney was a U.S. Navy pilot who flew secret missions that exposed him to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Deloney passed away still waiting for declassification of records that would prove his exposure to the toxic defoliant and qualify him for VA disability benefits.
Project SHAD alone exposed at least 5,900 U.S. military members to chemical and biological agents, according to DOD. Thousands more may have been exposed in other classified U.S. military operations.
S.726 would require declassification only of information necessary for a veteran to prove his or her claim for disability benefits. The bill also would allow the DOD to refuse to release records if the secretary of defense "determines that declassification of those documents would materially and immediately threaten the security of the United States."
It's hard to imagine that records proving Olsen's exposure to hazardous substances more than 50 years ago could be a threat to our national security in 2017.
Olsen obeyed the order to keep mum about Project SHAD, not even telling his wife, Bertha Olsen, until after the DOD acknowledged the project in 2000. The next year, they attended a reunion of Project SHAD veterans in San Diego.
"When we got married, I was not able to tell her anything I had done when I was in the service," Olsen said.
Military superiors had told him he was selected for this special project that would involve the very best sailors. He spent nearly two years training for it, including training in how to don hazardous materials suits. But during the actual months of testing, the sailors had no hazmat suits. The did get lots of shots that they were told were vaccinations against biological agents that would be sprayed on their ship.
The aerial spraying was always done at night, so the sun wouldn't destroy the biological agents, he said. Five tugboats would be lined up off Johnson Island. A Navy plane would fly over them, spraying them with something. Then the boat crew would clean their ships with gallons of full-strength chemicals, even cleaning the refrigerators so the food was exposed to the cleaner.
Olsen was 23 when his tugboat was being bombarded with still-classified substances. He's now 76. Some Project SHAD veterans are deceased. It's not known how many other veterans secretly exposed during their service to toxic substances are living.
This wrong should have been righted generations ago. Congress should approve the Toxic Exposure Declassification Act without further delay.
On this Memorial Day, there are American heroes being penalized for hazardous duty. It's time to honor that service. Congress must direct DOD to share information with VA for the sake of U.S. veterans.
We commend Tester and Moran for leading this belated effort. We call on Montana's Sen. Steve Danies and Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso to actively support the bill named for a Vida native who served in Project SHAD.
"Those medical records should not be classified at this time," Tester told The Gazette, just days after meeting with Agent Orange veterans now living in the Kalispell area. "It's a problem we shouldn't have to fix."
In the chaos of Washington, D.C., Congress can right this longstanding wrong — if Democrats and Republicans work together. Moran and Tester have started the bipartisan drive, time for the rest of the Senate to follow their lead.