Help Promised to WWII Vets Subjected To Mustard Gas Tests

John and Joan Tedesco stand before a wall filled with World War II memorabilia including John's service photograph.

John and Joan Tedesco stand before a wall filled with World War II memorabilia including John’s service photograph.

This week – NPR revealed that 60,000 World War II veterans were exposed to mustard gas while training in the U.S. and some are currently living in the Tampa Bay region.

The NPR investigation found that the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to keep its promise to help any of the mustard gas veterans who had permanent injuries. After the NPR investigation, the VA is again pledging to reach out to ensure exposed veterans are getting the benefits they’ve earned.

And the vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, has called for a hearing and offered his assistance to one of his constituents, John Tedesco of Pasco County.

John Tedesco as a  US Navy Seaman First Class in WWII - notice the photo of Joan tucked into the left corner.

John Tedesco as a US Navy Seaman First Class in WWII – notice the photo of Joan tucked into the left corner.

Tedesco said he was part of the Navy’s mustard gas experiments conducted at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in early 1944. He was 17 years old.

“We really didn’t know what was going on. We were young,” Tedesco said. “We got all kinds of shots. But I figured it was just normal, you know, routine.”

Now 88 years old, Tedesco doesn’t remember specifics of the mustard gas test, he does remember being checked by doctors and corpsmen at noon each day after the test for more than a week.

Some of his buddies from Company 92 at Great Lakes were able to give detailed accounts in a 1991 Erie, Pennsylvania newspaper article. It was published shortly after the U.S. Department of Defense declassified the mustard gas experiments.

“When I was back in Erie and I met some of the fellas, they said they were going to go put a claim in because they were all kind of sick too,” Tedesco said adding that his group went to the local veterans affairs office together to fill out paperwork and then to the VA for two days of tests. He said his claim was denied.

John Tedesco holds up the 1991 newspaper article that details how he and some of his friends from Erie, PA were used for mustard gas experiments while at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

John Tedesco holds up the 1991 newspaper article that details how he and some of his friends from Erie, PA were used for mustard gas experiments while at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

Tedesco said he developed breathing problems shortly after joining the Navy. He got out in May 1946 but didn’t go to the VA about his health issues until 1991 – more than four decades later.

“I was a carpenter and I was a builder, a small builder and I did that up until I quit,” Tedesco said. He retired at age 57. “You know I couldn’t stand – like if they’d be bulldozing on the job and making dust, I’d have to go home because I’d get sick. If they’d paint, I’d have to go home. Smells and that, they bother (me), my wife don’t wear perfume or anything because it bothers me.”

A photo of Joan and John Tedesco's wedding in October 1947.

A photo of Joan and John Tedesco’s wedding in October 1947.

His wife of 67 years, Joan Tedesco, said her husband’s health problems were really bad when they lived in California in the 1960s.

“I used to rush him to the hospital all the time, he couldn’t breathe. Here they found out he was allergic to the redwood,” said Joan Tedesco. “We just loved it out there but there was no way we could stay, so we ended going back to Erie.”

Their son, Dr. John Tedesco, is a family physician practicing in Wesley Chapel. He also has vivid memories of when they lived in California.

“My father was in construction. They said he was having allergy problems but what it was it was asthma,” Dr. Tedesco said.

“His breathing was absolutely horrible. One time they had to call paramedics to come to the house because he couldn’t breathe and I remember them doing an intra-cardiac epinephrine shot,” Dr. Tedesco said. “As a little kid watching somebody stick a big needle into your father’s chest while he was lying on the ground because he can’t breathe, I’ll never forget that.”

A high school yearbook photo of John Tedesco on the golf team when he was in eleventh grade. His health issues limited his ability to play sports with his children.

A high school yearbook photo of John Tedesco on the golf team when he was in eleventh grade. His health issues limited his ability to play sports with his children.

He said his dad’s breathing problems prevented him from even simple joys like playing sports with his children.

Dr. Tedesco believes his father’s asthma is not due to allergies but instead related to his mustard gas exposure. He even wrote a letter to the VA to help his father file another mustard gas claim – that too was rejected.

After a while, the World War II veteran who spent 21 months in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea just gave up.

“You know, I feel they should have done something and they didn’t do anything,” Tedesco said.”We tried. They turned me down so many times I figured just let it go.”

Hearing of Tedesco’s plight, his member of congress, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, promised to help.

“We’re going to reach out to him and if he gives me permission to advocate on his behalf, I certainly will,” Bilirakis said.

The vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told NPR he’s working on bringing in VA officials to testify, and has already requested a hearing.

Knowing what he knows now — Tedesco says he’d volunteer to serve today if asked.

“It’s a good country. Yes, I would,” Tedesco said. “It’s the best country in the world.”

 

 

World War II Vet Says VA Denied His Mustard Gas Claim

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies from his basic training filed VA claims in 1991 after the mustard gas testing they were subjected to was declassified.

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies also exposed to mustard gas filed VA claims in 1991 after the testing was declassified.

This week, NPR has revealed that the U.S. military conducted chemical weapons experiments on American soldiers and sailors during World War II.

It also found the Veterans Administration did little to help the thousands of veterans exposed to mustard gas.

John Tedesco, 88, is a Tampa Bay area veteran who said he was exposed to mustard gas in basic training — before he shipped out to the Pacific in 1944.

Like many who enlisted during World War II, Tedesco was young when he signed up for  the Navy in November 1943. It was less than a month after he turned 17 years old.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

By January 1945,  Tedesco and several friends from Erie, Pennsylvania were in boot camp together at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station just north of Chicago.

That’s where Tedesco said he and a couple of his buddies were exposed to mustard gas. He said no one objected – at the time – you did what you were told to do.

“We were all young, 17 years old – 18 years old. You know,” Tedesco said.

He doesn’t remember the specifics of the mustard gas test — but he recalls what came next.

“The day after, I remember, they used to have two doctors and corpsmen come at noon and they checked us over,” Tedesco said. “For about a week, they did this and then we never seen them no more. That was it.”

In a few months, Tedesco was on his way to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and later New Guinea. He would serve 21 months overseas. He was discharged May 2, 1946 in California.

“I’ve had breathing problems ever since I went into the Navy,” Tedesco said. “I don’t know if it was because I started smoking while I was in the Navy or if it was the mustard gas. But something’s bothered me ever since.”

Tedesco said he suffers from asthma and had to retire early from his job as a carpenter and building contractor, at age 57, because of chronic breathing problems.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

He said he and some of his friends filed claims with the VA in 1991 when the mustard gas experiments were declassified. Their quest was written up in the local Erie newspaper.

But Tedesco said his claim was denied. He said he tried again when he got more proof – a copy of a letter a friend wrote while they were in boot camp together.

“And in that letter, he mentioned that we were mustard gassed and he had my name mentioned that we were there,” Tedesco said.

But again, the VA denied his claim, Tedesco said.

That’s when  he just let it go because he didn’t want to jeopardize the disability payment he does receive for hearing loss and a leg wound suffered in the war.

The VA has responded to NPR’s series on Broken Promises To Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas and lawmakers are promising take action including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, vice-chairman of the US House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Bilirakis’ office has reached out to Tedesco to offer help getting his VA claim reviewed.

Winning Appeals for Denied Veteran Benefits Claims

Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic director Stacey-Rae Simcox goes over a case file with paralegal Shirley Wells. Both women are Army veterans.

Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic director Stacey-Rae Simcox (left) goes over a case file with paralegal Shirley Wells (right). Both women are Army veterans.

There’s no shortage of stories about veterans who have had their disability benefit claims denied by the Veterans Administration, or their appeals paperwork lost.

The VA claims process can be complex, time consuming and downright frustrating.

But there’s help for veterans who have hit a roadblock in their quest for benefits they earned while serving in the military.

The new director at the Stetson University College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic has forged some creative partnerships resulting in an 81 percent success rate appealing denied VA benefits claims.

“With this legal-medical partnership and law students bringing evidence to the table for the VA and making it easy to understand, we’ve been able to get the VA to change their mind about 81 percent of the time, the very first time we present evidence to them which is impressive,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, Veterans Advocacy Clinic director.

Stetson recruited Simcox from William & Mary where she helped establish a veterans’ legal clinic in 2008.

VLI_sign_exterior“My husband, Mark Matthews, actually helped me start that clinic at William & Mary. And the reason we started it was when we got off active-duty, we messed up my husband’s claims with the VA so badly that we missed all the deadlines and the claims died,” Simcox said. “We couldn’t get all the benefits he deserved. We thought “Jeez!” if two JAG officers can’t figure this out, how is the average service member who gets off active-duty going to figure this out. So we decided to become experts.”

And they also became innovators setting up a partnership at William & Mary between the veterans’ clinic and the psychology department. Psychology students did mental health assessments of veterans who had been denied a disability claim. The results were include in their appeal to the VA.

“Any veteran who has gone through the process of veterans benefits will tell you that medical evidence is really important to what they do and if you can’t prove to the VA through medical evidence that your disability somehow has to do with your service, then you’re not going to get that benefit,” Simcox said.

Because of their limited staff, veterans seeking help with a claims appeal are asked to call or contact the clinic through their website.

Because of their limited staff, veterans seeking help with a claims appeal are asked to call or contact the clinic through their website.

At Stetson she’s forged an even broader partnership teaming up with the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

“To create a partnership with the medical school for this purpose is a huge boon to the veterans and the VA because not only are we able to help veterans with mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, but now we can collaborate with medicine on the issues that most veterans have: hearing loss, back problems, knee problems,” Simcox said.

By the time a veteran walks into the Stetson Veterans Law Institute – they’ve usually knocked on every door there is to knock on. As soon as they enter the converted one-story home across from the Gulfport campus, they will meet Shirley Wells, a paralegal, and Army veteran who handles intake.

“We have some cases where soldiers have been looked over for 20-30 years,” Wells said.

Eighty-percent of their cases are appeals of denied disability claims, but occasionally they help on unique first-time claims.

Second year law student Daniel Flanagan couldn't join the Marines because of health issues. So, he wanted to serve by helping veterans with their disability claims appeals.

Second year law student Daniel Flanagan couldn’t join the Marines because of health issues. So, he wanted to serve by helping veterans with their disability claims appeals.

Stetson law students are a key to the success of the Veterans Advocacy Clinic. They do much of research and reading of files as thick as 1,000 pages. Daniel Flanagan, a second year student, works 18 hours a week at the clinic.

“This is practical. You don’t get to chew through a case file in any of your other classes. When you get Torts you go through a whole bunch of Supreme Court cases, but you don’t actually sit down with a case file that is a 1,000 pages thick,” Flanagan said.

What are practical lessons for the law students can become life-changing cases for the veterans.

“The people we’re getting are kind of at the end of their rope. They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Flanagan said. “For me, it makes it stressful because ‘Oh my goodness!’ I’m your last hope. Hope I don’t mess this one up.”

That’s not going to happen because their work is supervised by Simcox and other law professors at Stetson

Simcox is working toward the day when the VA and the veterans clinic can have a strong, two-way relationship so they can work together fixing veterans’ benefit claims and getting the assessments right the first time.

Haley VA Making Strides for Paralyzed Veterans

 (April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


(April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital is using cutting edge technology to help injured veterans rehabilitate.

One of the devices, at the Spinal Cord Injury Center, helping paralyzed veterans stand and walk again is the Exoskeleton.

Using a computer backpack, robotic leg braces and a walker, veteran Josh Baker demonstrated the Exoskeleton during the April 2014 ceremonial opening of Haley’s new Polytrauma Center.

Baker said it didn’t require much effort on his part.

“If you get a good rhythm and you’re good upright, you can actually walk right along and the machine simulates it,” Baker said.

His VA therapists were impressed by how quickly Baker advanced after just two weeks of practice. Baker was on the device’s most advanced setting, where the device takes automatic steps once it senses the veteran’s foot is in the correct position.

One of the features of the Exoskeleton is that it can be programmed with each individual’s weight, height and gait which individualizes the simulated walking, therapists said.

For the first time since his motorcycle accident in November 2013, Baker said the ability to walk with the Exoskeleton gave him “a jubilation feeling.”

Witnessing their wheelchair-bound son walk again that day at Haley was emotional for his parents Laurie and Robert Baker.

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Laurie Baker said anything that makes her son feel better makes her feel better. His father agreed.

“It was incredible,” Robert Baker said. “That’s the first time I got to see him walk since November and it just means so much.”

He said the device also will help other veterans living with disabilities.

“It’s going to help so many other servicemen to just give them the hope that they can stand again when they’re just stuck in a wheelchair,” said Robert Baker. “It’s just a blessing.”

Haley is one of two Ekso Bionic Centers in Florida. The other is located at the University of Miami Project.

Senate Passes the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary's emails pertaining to an "alternate wait list" at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary’s emails pertaining to an “alternate wait list” at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

A bill aimed at improving veteran accessibility to mental  health care has passed the US Senate and now only needs President Obama’s signature to become law.

The US House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on January 12, 2015 for a second time.

The House also passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act in early December 2014. But the bill was killed in the Senate by outgoing, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The bipartisan legislation not only embraces new ideas to improve the effectiveness of VA mental health care it also requires annual reviews of program effectiveness.

“The Senate did the right thing today by passing the Clay Hunt SAV Act. The bill is an important step toward helping stop the epidemic of veteran suicides,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a news release.

Lessons Learned as Director of Tampa’s Haley VA Hospital

Kathleen Fogarty is leaving one of the nation's busiest VA hospitals after almost four years at the helm.

Kathleen Fogarty is leaving one of the nation’s busiest VA hospitals after almost four years at the helm.

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center will soon have a new director. Marjorie Hedstrom, the medical center director at the VA in Popular Bluff, Missouri, will take over in just over a week.

The current director, Kathleen Fogarty, is leaving Haley by choice.

She’s taken the same position at a smaller, less hectic VA hospital in Kansas City. That’s after almost four years at one of the nation’s busiest veteran medical centers serving some 200,000 veterans living in the Tampa Bay Region.

 

“I began my career at the Kansas city VA medical center as a clinical dietician in 1986,”Fogarty said.

The 55-year-old director said she’s breaking her rule – to never go back to a previous place of employment. But after serving 32 years in the VA system, she said she is ready to “go home.”

Haley VA director Kathleen Fogarty chats with a veteran inside the American Heroes Cafe.

Haley VA director Kathleen Fogarty chats with a veteran inside the American Heroes Cafe.

She said the Kansas City VA is not as complex or as busy as Haley, but it will help her ease into retirement while bringing lessons learned at Haley.

One of those lessons became very public when a family went to the news media about the VA placing a surveillance camera inside the smoke detector of their family member’s room.

“Do I have regrets? I don’t have regrets. I know the decision was made for the safety of that patient,” Fogarty said. “Would I do something differently? I would make a huge sign on the camera. And would I choose that camera? No I’ve said I wouldn’t choose that type of camera ever again.”

She said the episode prompted other changes like the creation of a code of conduct for families.

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. (July 2014)

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. (July 2014)

Another issue prevalent throughout the Veterans Health Care system has been long waiting lists for care. It’s one of the reasons why Fogarty was temporarily tapped to take over VISN 18, the VA network that oversees the troubled Phoenix medical center which sparked the whole VA scandal.

“I don’t want you to believe that we have fixed all access problems here at James A Haley because we still, we have a tremendous amount of requests for specialty types of care,” Fogarty said.

To handle that demand, Fogarty extended clinic hours and added Saturday appointments especially in the area of mental health. And for women veterans, Fogarty was instrumental in getting features like a separate entrance designed in the women’s clinic at the VA’s primary care annex.

“I don’t think that there are a lot of VAs that have put lactation rooms in. It was pretty rare to even have a child’s play area,” Fogarty said. “We listened and we really think we have a model.”

Other milestones under her watch at Haley:

  • The first VA hospital in the country to have a USO day room.
  • The opening of the new Polytrauma Medical Center with a climbing wall and other X-Game type recreation.
  • The opening of the American Heroes Café – a restaurant setting inside the hospital.
  • The opening of a 10 bed palliative and hospice unit.
  • A new urology unit.
  • A 100 bed spinal cord injury unit that mirrors the same family resources as the polytrauma center
  • The opening of a 1,501 space parking garage and valet parking at Haley’s two main entrances.

Fogarty will remain as the interim director of VISN 18 until a permanent director takes over then she will settle into her new post in Kansas City. She wasn’t sure of her last day at Haley, however, her replacement starts Feb. 2, 2015.

 

Tampa VA Loses Director Who Is Heading ‘Home’

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. (July 2014)

Tampa’s VA hospital director Kathleen Fogarty is leaving her post permanently to take a similar position with the Kansas City VA Medical Center.

She made the announcement, she said, so that VA could begin hunting for Haley’s new leader.

Fogarty has been absent from James A. Haley VA Medical Center since November. That’s when she was tapped to temporarily take over as the acting network director responsible for the Phoenix VA which had documented cases of delayed veterans care and long claims waiting lists. That assignment was going to last at least three months.

In an email message sent to her colleagues at James A. Haley VA, Fogarty announced her decision to take the Kansas City position.

“… Kansas City is home to our family and this opportunity allows me to go home,” Fogarty wrote.

She has worked for more than three decades with the VA Health Care administration.

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