Vernon D. Bowman was 18 years old in December 1944, finishing basic training at the Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Cecil County, when officers asked his group for volunteers for a study.
Offered 10 days of extra leave, Bowman accepted, a decision he has regretted ever since.
Bowman said he was dressed in a mask and protective clothing and exposed to mustard agent in a chamber at the Naval Research Laboratory in Anacostia. The government has confirmed that thousands of service volunteers were similarly exposed to the chemical warfare weapon at that lab and other facilities, including Edgewood Arsenal in Harford County, which is part of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Mustard agent forms a mist that burns exposed body tissue. The clothing didn't protect Bowman or an untold number of other volunteers. Bowman said he suffered burns all over his body and damage to his lungs and eyes. Now 64, retired and living in Randallstown with his parents, he was unable to work most of his life, he says.
The mustard agent tests remained a government secret for years, thwarting efforts by injured veterans to obtain compensation from the Veterans Administration, which is now the Department of Veterans Affairs. Finally, this week, the VA agreed to give them disability benefits.
"Mistakes were made, mistakes that we have to correct," said Deputy VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi.
Bowman said on Wednesday that the VA in Baltimore told him officials have recommended he receive what he's been seeking for years: a 100 percent service disability pension, worth, he believes, about $1,000 a month.
"It was quite a surprise," Bowman said later. "I could have fell through the floor."
An official reached yesterday at the VA Hospital in Baltimore said the agency could not comment on Bowman's case because of privacy laws.
Bowman volunteered for the Navy after dropping out of Forest Park High School in Baltimore, where he ran track. "I was in top shape," he said, when he first entered the hot, lead-lined chamber at the research lab and stood as a mist of mustard agent enveloped him.
One hour a day, four days in a row, he entered that chamber. The first day, he felt nothing. The second day, "I knew something was going wrong. I felt my eyes start watering. My chest started burning."
He was kept in the full hour, then given a shower, ointment for burns and assurances he was OK. He went back in the next day reluctantly. "The third time I was burnt a little raw. My throat was raw -- they called it laryngitis."
More ointment and another shower followed. On the fourth day, "After 35 or 40 minutes in the chamber I got nauseated, I felt real bad. I vomited in my mask. I was choking to death in my mask."
He lifted the bottom of the mask to breathe, and inhaled the caustic vapor. Still, he was kept in the chamber for a full hour, he said.
"They took me to the medical facility [at Anacostia] and started treating me right away," he said. "But the next morning, blisters started showing up."
After two days of treatment he was sent home for the promised 10 days of leave. His mother said: "I didn't recognize him." Then he returned to the medical facility for more treatment before being sent to the Pacific theater on an aircraft carrier, where he served as an aerial gunner.
He said he began to have nightmares, spit up blood and experience other problems, but received only cursory treatment from military doctors. When the war ended, he underwent 10 more months of treatment.
The Navy discharged Bowman in 1947 involuntarily for medical reasons, citing a "nervous disorder" and granting him a 100 percent disability pension. But he says the Navy never acknowledged a cause of that "disorder," refusing to link his problems to the effects of the tests.
In 1952 his pension was cut to 50 percent because he had taken a part-time job and the Navy found out; in 1955 his pension was cut again, to 30 percent.
Bowman and other servicemen exposed to mustard agent say they were ordered not to divulge information for 30 years on penalty of imprisonment. He said he kept his promise, then in 1974 told all to a VA doctor.
From that point, he began to keep careful records and to seek his earlier service records, a daunting task given the secrecy covering the tests. Meanwhile, he continued to work on and off until 1979 when, he said, he "just couldn't work anymore."
He repeatedly petitioned the VA to restore his 100 percent service disability pension. He said the VA, recognizing that he was disabled but refusing to acknowledge a service connection, offered him a less lucrative non-service pension, which he accepted. It pays him $594 a month and would be replaced by his new, higher disability pension.
The big break came last year when he read an article in The Evening Sun about the efforts of Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., to help four former sailors obtain compensation. Goss introduced legislation on behalf of the sailors which encouraged the VA to re-evaluate its procedures for dealing with claims submitted by veterans injured in the tests.
Bowman supplied Goss with records about his case and used the federal Freedom of Information Act to collect newly declassified documents on the tests.
Today, Bowman has thick files of correspondence with the government as well as government documents establishing his participation in the tests. Little documentation of the tests exists, however, the VA said. In its announcement Tuesday, the VA said it will give the benefit of the doubt to injured veterans who lack proof of participation.
Veterans who suffer what the VA says are long-term effects of mustard agent exposure -- laryngitis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, chronic conjunctivitis and corneal opacities -- will be eligible for disability compensation.
VA officials say they don't know how many veterans participated in the tests, who was injured and who among them is still alive.
One VA official provided an estimate of 60,000 servicemen, but that estimate comes from a draft Army document which contains few details. Army officials could not be reached for comment.
The tests apparently were done to evaluate protective garb. Bowman said his skin burns healed, but not his lungs or his eyes, which he shields even indoors with sunglasses. He moves his compact frame gingerly, protecting a back he says is weakened by degenerative bone disease, and takes medication for pain and to relieve muscle spasms. All of his problems stem from the tests, he said.
He said the tests weren't ethical, and wonders why he had to spend so many years getting the government to acknowledge what happened. Nonetheless, he said he's not bitter.
"I've been fighting them for so many years it doesn't make any difference to me anymore," he said. "I'm satisfied I won."