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DoD Releases Information on 1960 tests

WASHINGTON, January 4, 2002 (DeploymentLINK) - In the 1960s, the Department of Defense conducted a series of chemical and biological warfare vulnerability tests on naval ships known collectively as Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense. Over the past 10 years, some individual veterans expressed concern to the Department of Veterans Affairs that their participation in these tests may have exposed them to harmful substances.

In August 2000, the VA asked the DoD for help in obtaining information needed to clarify claims information from servicemembers who believed they might have been exposed to harmful substances during their participation in SHAD exercises. Specifically, VA claims experts needed to know what type of substances veterans may have been exposed to, and when they may have been exposed. The simulants or agents used, dates of the tests and which vessels were involved are key to determine if there should be a concern today. The Defense Department then began an investigation to determine possible medical hazards which may have been associated with these tests and recently released the first in a series of fact sheets about the exercises. Dee Dodson Morris is coordinating this ongoing investigation. Her 22-year career in the Army Chemical Corps gives her distinctive understanding of these tests.

"Simulants replaced actual chemical and biological warfare agents in most of these tests," she said, "but some plans involved the use of actual chemical and biological warfare agents. However, so far we have found no evidence to indicate that participation in Project SHAD caused harmful health effects at the time."

Getting the facts has proven to be a challenge for a number of reasons, she said. The SHAD tests were intended to show how vulnerable Navy ships were to chemical or biological warfare agents. The objective was to learn how chemical or biological warfare agents would disperse throughout a ship, and to use that information to develop procedures to protect crewmembers and decontaminate ships. Naturally, the entire program was classified. And, as Morris points out, it was a different time.

"This was the cold war era," she says. "There was a much different view within the U.S. government of what kind of information was shared with the public."

There are other challenges, too. Morris is attempting to reconstruct events that occurred almost 40 years ago. The research information was archived, but not filed electronically, and in some instances facilities were closed and original records were destroyed or forwarded elsewhere. Investigators believe there were more than a hundred individual tests planned under the SHAD program with unrelated names, but the lack of test results may indicate that many tests were never actually executed.

The SHAD program was planned and conducted by the Army’s Deseret Test Center. However, the tests were done on Navy ships. Both services kept separate, but service-specific records of the results. Nobody in either service had gathered the pieces together. For the past year, Morris and her team have been searching throughout the DoD system for data, systematically targeting the places these records may have been tucked away.

"We know that the Deseret Test Center documents were taken over by Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah," Morris says. "We also know some of those documents went to Fort Detrick."

The process has been painstaking. Paper and microfiche records have been combed by hand, important bits of information pieced together and added to a list of materials which then had to go through the Pentagon’s declassification process. This investigation has required the close cooperation of the VA, the Military Veterans Health Coordinating Board, the Assistant Secretaries for Manpower and Reserve Affairs of the Army and Navy, and elements of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The Under Secretary of the Army also worked to expeditiously declassify needed documentation.

Data collected for each test includes the test dates, identification of ships and units involved, test locations, simulants/agents/decontaminants used and test methods employed. Morris’ investigators have gone through thousands of classified documents, and she says there are thousands more to look at.

In addition to finding information that may help the VA answer concerns of participants of SHAD tests, Morris says looking closely at the record keeping during SHAD tests has provided great insight into the importance for current and future military research to document the informed consent process and inform people involved in operational or medical testing of the final results.

"We must accurately document the facts so that, if we later find that something that today we believe is not harmful turns out to be more harmful than we thought, we can go back and make it right," said Morris.

Officials say the SHAD investigation has also laid the groundwork for any future investigations of its type. Aside from creating a system for searching out specific documents, Morris and her team have helped to solidify the relationship DoD has with the VA for answering deployment health-related concerns together.

"We have given them confidence that they can ask a question and get information that is useful to determine if a veteran was in a given place at a given time and if he or she may have been exposed to a given substance," Morris says.

The investigation into SHAD tests continues, and more fact sheets will be released as information is developed. Veterans who believe they were involved in SHAD exercises and desire medical evaluations should call the VA Health Benefits Service Center toll-free at (877) 222-8387.