2009: Vietnam Veterans of America Files Suit Against the CIA & US Army

In 2009, Gordon Erspamer, a San Francisco lawyer filed suit against the CIA and the US Army on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America and six former American soldiers who claim they are survivors of classified government tests conducted at the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland between 1950 and 1975. Erspamer’s complaint, filed in January in a federal district court in California, alleges that at least 7,800 US servicemen served “as laboratory rats or guinea pigs” at Edgewood (Mother Jones, 2009).

“The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that military scientists tested hundreds of chemical and biological substances on them, including VX, tabun, soman, sarin, cyanide, LSD, PCP, and World War I-era blister agents like phosgene and mustard. The full scope of the tests, however, may never be known.” Not until 2006, did the government finally release human test subjects to speak to their physicians about the tests, under the condition that they not “discuss anything that relates to operational information that might reveal chemical or biological warfare vulnerabilities or capabilities.”

The UK and Canada have compensated their servicemen for injuries sustained during human testing of chemical and biological agents. In 2008, more than 350 servicemen who served as test subjects at Porton Down, a secret military research facility where the British government conducted its own series of mind-control experiments, were granted nearly $6 million in compensation in an out-of-court settlement. And in 2004, the Canadian government began offering $18,000 payments to eligible veterans of experiments at its testing facilities. Nevertheless, says Erspamer, “No American soldiers have ever been compensated.” The CIA and the Army “just hope they’re all gonna die off, and they will unless somebody does something.”

“Erspamer’s involvement in the case is deeply personal. His father was a government scientist during Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in the summer of 1946; he was present aboard a research vessel for the “Baker” test, during which a 21-kiloton thermonuclear bomb was detonated 90 feet below water. The blast resulted in massive radioactive contamination. Erspamer’s father and the rest of the ship’s crew, he says, all died in middle age from radiogenic diseases.

Erspamer makes his living in the field of energy litigation, but has twice before argued class action suits for veterans — one for soldiers who, like his father, were exposed to radiation during nuclear tests (a case he ultimately lost in a 1992 appellate decision) and more recently one on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans denied treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The case is on appeal in California’s 9th Circuit. “Nobody out there is doing these types of cases,” he says. “It’s really sad because the veterans are left holding the bag, and it’s not a very pretty bag.” (Uncle Sam’s Human Lab Rats, Mother Jones, 2009)