Vernon D. Bowman was 17 years old when he dropped out of Forest Park High School in 1944 and joined the Navy to fight in World War II.
Within weeks, lured by the promise of a 10-day leave from basic training, Mr. Bowman volunteered to test protective clothing and gear for the military -- a project he was forbidden to talk about.
What he did not know was that, like about 2,000 other patriotic kids of that generation, he was being used in a secret test of chemical
agents developed by the military -- tests that left many of the men, such as Mr. Bowman, disabled in some way, but with few clues as to why.
Although he went on to serve as a turret gunner aboard an Avenger torpedo bomber in the Pacific, Mr.Bowman has been troubled with physical and psychological problems ever since.
Only recently, after years of denial, did the government acknowledge that the tests involved mustard agent. But by then, most of the volunteers' medical documentation had been lost, destroyed and possibly doctored. And without that documentation, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs refused consider their disability claims.
Finally, on Tuesday, the VA proposed that World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard agent testing and who suffer from certain long-term effects would become eligible for disability compensation, without the documented in-service medical treatment.
Edward J. Derwinski, U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, said in a prepared statement, "Because of the confidential nature of some mustard gas testing during World War II, we are giving the benefit of the doubt to those veterans who were involved in these tests."
And the news seemed to be better yesterday for Mr. Bowman, now 64 years old.
"I was called down to VA this morning and they told me they got a directive from Washington that I was to be put on 100 percent service-connection disability today," he said from his Randallstown home. "I damn near fell through the floor. All these years, almost a half a century."
He is cautious about being too optimistic over the news until he gets written verification from the VA. If it is true, he will be far ahead of 1,930 other volunteers who still must prove their cases to the VA.
"At least I can go to bed and sleep at night knowing that they admitted they were wrong," Mr. Bowman said. "All these years."
Mr. Bowman credits Representative Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., with forcing the disability issue to a head. Mr. Goss, a freshman congressman, has championed the cause of four of the veterans who claim they were disabled as a result of the testing and has introduced legislation that would grant $750,000 to each of of them.
Mr. Bowman, who is not among the four veterans, read of Mr. Goss' efforts in a November article in The Sun and contacted the congressman's office. He said Mr. Goss then went to bat for him at the VA.
The VA's proposed new rule, which will be open to public comment, was based on the agency's determination that certain diseases can result from exposure to mustard agent, Mr. Derwinski said.
Ordinarily, the VA requires documentation that the illness or condition occurred during military service, which can be checked against the person's military medical record. But because the testing was done secretly and few medical records can be located on the testing, the criteria would not be applied to mustard agent claims.
Under the proposed rule, the recognized long-term effects of significant exposure to mustard are laryngitis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, chronic conjunctivitis and corneal opacities. The VA defined "long-term" effects as those lasting longer than a year.
Mr. Bowman said he suffers from a variety of debilitating ailments, all of which he maintains are linked to the mustard agent exposure.
He said he has pulmonary emphysema, complicated by healed lesions in the lungs; retina damage;, eye muscle damage and cataracts; arthritis of the spine; intestinal and spastic colon problems; muscular spasms of the throat, neck, shoulder, arms and legs; and from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In addition to his medical problems, Mr. Bowman has been married and divorced three times, has had
difficulty finding and keeping a job, and greater difficulty living on the $222-a-month disability payment the VA currently sends him. He now lives with his 90-year-old father and 85-year-old mother.
"This thing's made one hell of a mess out of my whole adult life," he said. "The VA turned their back on me, and everything broke loose."
Mr. Bowman's story is not unlike many others that have come to light over the years.
In December 1944, under Marine guard, Mr. Bowman and a handful of other sailors were bused from Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Cecil County to the Naval Research Laboratory at Anacostia in Washington. The group stayed in quarters where, over a two-week period, they were exposed to "Vapor H" while dressed in protective clothing and gas masks.
But Mr. Bowman's protective suit did not do its job, resulting in burns over 90 percent of his body. And his mask leaked during a test exposure, forcing him to crawl out of the gas chamber, temporarily blinded and choking on his own vomit from the mysterious vapor.
The vapor was mustard agent -- a potentially lethal blistering agent developed in World War I and manufactured during World War II as a weapon to be used in case Nazi Germany or Japan used it first.
Nearly 2,000 unwitting volunteers were subjected to secret tests with chemical warfare agents by the U.S. Navy between 1943 and 1946, primarily at the Naval Research Laboratory at Anacostia in Washington.
The sailors -- most of them "naval trainees" between the ages of 17 and 19 -- were lured to test "summer clothing" and other protective clothing with the promise of special leave. Instead, they were subjected to tests in gas chambers, apparently to test the effectiveness of protective clothing. Of the total number of sailors believed to have been tested, 193 were given "patch tests," in which a drop of chemical agent was placed on an area of their skin.
Other testing also may have taken place at Edgewood Arsenal, now part of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County; Dugway Proving Ground, Utah; and the University of Chicago Toxicity Laboratory in Illinois, officials said.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have said amany as 60,000 military personnel may have been exposed to the chemical agents in a variety of tests.
Nathan Schnurman, 64, is another veteran who has argued for years that he was exposed by the military to mustard agent, and one of the four veterans Representative Goss is helping directly.
Mr. Schnurman, who for a while lived in Baltimore before moving back to his native Virginia, has fought the government unsuccessfully for years with VA claims and lawsuits. But he too is cautious, though he now seems close to being successful in his efforts.
"You have to prove you were involved in it and prove you were injured," he said last night in a telephone interview from his Charles City, Va. home.