Dugway, Utah Chemical Testing

Chemical testing performed on humans, often without their knowledge



Dugway tests weigh on former soldier's mind

By Stephen Speckman

Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008 12:13 a.m. MDT

HILL AIR FORCE BASE New Jersey native Edward G. Bartling can't shake a few nagging questions when something vaults his memory back to the summer of 1960 and the shadowy military tests he observed then in a remote area of Utah.

Standing next to a B-29 bomber parked behind the Hill Air Force Base museum recently took him back to that time.

It was 48 years ago when Bartling, now 73, was a corporal stationed at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground. Back then, he watched soldiers take part in tests that exposed them to potentially dangerous materials being sprayed from a plane.

Exactly what those materials were, he still can't say for sure. But he is hopeful a new government Web site will provide some answers.

"At that time, we really didn't have an idea of what the heck was going on, nor did we have enough sense to question it," he said. "When you're in the service, you follow orders."

Bartling was drafted into the Army on Feb. 9, 1959. On Feb. 8, 1961, he got out, leaving behind the Army he knew to begin his life with Renee Johanson, with whom he raised six children.

For 30 years, Bartling worked for Alliant Techsystems (formerly Hercules), in the end as a supervisor over workers manufacturing rocket motors in West Valley City. Now, he makes wooden toys for children in his shop at home.

At Dugway, the Army transformed him from a Jersey boy raised on a poultry farm into a young man who would don a gas mask in the middle of the Utah desert. He would record on a clipboard what was happening to fellow soldiers during three tests.

Bartling was assigned to the 45th Chemical Company, 2nd Chemical Battalion. His unit's job was to make smoke, like the kind that covers miles of terrain to mask troop movements. That wouldn't be his only job.

He can remember using a B-29 at Dugway in decontamination exercises, but he's certain the materials used on the plane were inert. That B-29 was eventually disassembled and taken to Hill.

He had heard about all types of animals being used to test protective gear in what he knew as the "dog area" of Dugway's 1,300 square miles.

"Anything you can think of besides elephants and giraffes," Bartling laughed. He didn't see the animal tests nor did he wonder what happened to them afterward.

For the human tests, military officials who ranked higher than Bartling would ask for volunteers. If there weren't enough volunteers, he said, they would simply pick the lower-ranking grunts. Bartling was a corporal at the time, which meant he got to be an observer, with at least some protection.

Bartling said if the winds, air pressure and temperature were just right, everyone would be up by 4 a.m. and assemble on a test grid by dawn. Then a jet would fly in close to the ground and make a run while spraying something over the volunteers.

"We were always told it would never hurt us, that this stuff won't hurt you," Bartling said.

Human test subjects

He watched the planes bank left or right and then up after their runs, noticing that the spray valves did not shut off right away. Bartling still wonders who or what was downwind and what the damage might have been in areas where the spray was released after the planes exited.

After the planes left, observers would wait and then approach men stationed at least about 30, 50 or 150 yards apart.

"I would talk to them and say, 'Hey, how you feeling? Can you see alright? Are you feeling any pain?"' Bartling said.

He only recorded station numbers, never any names. Their answers weren't always friendly.

"They might tell you, 'Kiss my butt' or 'Give me your damn gas mask' or 'Get the hell out of here, I'm not doing this anymore,"' Bartling said. "That wasn't a fun time."

Bartling can recall one distinct smell out on the test grid after one of the tests: freshly mowed hay. But there were no hay fields. What that smell was, Bartling isn't sure.

Bartling's long-smoldering questions relate to those tests and an infamous incident in 1968, after he was out of the Army, when a nerve-gas accident killed 6,000 sheep in nearby Skull Valley. Some of the more than 2,700 pounds of nerve agent sprayed from a plane in March of that year drifted off base, killing sheep and reportedly harming humans who said that they experienced nervous-system related illnesses.

Bartling wants to know what the test was for that killed the sheep, how many humans might have been harmed and what else, or who, was downwind.

"They didn't do them just for fun," Bartling said about open-air tests at Dugway. As for the dead sheep, he added, "My big question is this: Who was in the test grid or what was in the test grid to do the test spray? They're not going to spray (nerve) agent just for nothing."

Seeking answers

Because of that 1968 sheep incident, he'd like to know more about what was sprayed from those planes he watched eight years before the 6,000 sheep died.

Bartling heard last month about a new Web site designed by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs for people who knew about or took part in military experiments that involved exposing humans to chemical and biological agents. The site went live Sept. 17.

Prior to creation of the Web site, many veterans would have been reluctant or even opposed to talk about once-classified tests, with code names like Project 112/SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense), that they were told had to remain secret, according to Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, director of strategic communications for the Defense Department's Military Health System under the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

"We need to get the word out to say that it's OK to talk about these things," Kilpatrick said.

The Defense Department and VA want the Web site fhp.osd.mil/CBexposures to be a link for helping vets with insurance, treatment and any legal claims possibly related to tests that took place long ago.

The Web site so far has generated about 130 e-mail inquiries and 20 phone calls to the Defense Department. Kilpatrick said that if there's a "preponderance of evidence," or 50 percent chance or more, that a caller's claim is service-connected, that person will get any necessary help through the VA.

Kilpatrick said the site has generated for the VA about 500 disability claims, with 90 approved. About a dozen of those cases, he said, are directly related to tests involving chemical and biological agents or simulants.

Of the 12 cases linked to tests, a third of those may be psychological problems, Kilpatrick said. Those problems may stem from the fact that for 30 or 40 years, people have lived with knowing they took part, sometimes without consent, in tests about which they knew little or nothing. Life interruptions like flashbacks and disturbed sleep for those people, similar to someone who might experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), persist even today, Kilpatrick said.

Chemical testing

The Web site has information about decades-old Dugway tests that included the use of 17 different chemical and biological agents. The government also wants to hear from people linked to the Deseret Test Center, headquartered at Fort Douglas. From 1962 to 1973, officials at the center organized tests using dangerous materials in numerous locations at sea and on land during World War II and the Cold War.

But Utah-based military watchdog Steve Erickson said the Web site is too little and too late. "They wait until everybody's dead, and then they reveal the truth."

Bartling's daughter in Murray went to the Web site and retrieved a few phone numbers for her father. Bartling called and was on the receiving end of more questions than he asked. He has received a few calls back, and now he's waiting for more information about what went on 48 years ago at the Utah base.

Dugway spokeswoman Paula Nicholson said that about eight years ago, Defense Department officials visited the base to gather information about old tests that took place there. She was told that the department provided the VA with names of people who had taken part in tests either at Dugway or elsewhere. Since 2001, she has received about five calls from veterans who thought they might have been injured in a service-related incident.

"They thought they had been, quote, 'bitten' by some kind of chemical," Nicholson said in a phone interview.

Nicholson has a Defense Department contact to whom she referred those callers. She also has a 2002 department document that has answers to questions about tests that took place in six states and three countries.

Nicholson said the base hasn't conducted any open-air field tests of actual chemical or biological agents since 1969. She said only simulated materials are now used in outside tests at Dugway.

"We do not do any testing with agents unless it's in a laboratory," she said.

Dugway's mission today is to test equipment designed to protect troops in a chemical or biological attack and to test detection devices that might warn of the presence of those materials. The base, billed as the "nation's chemical and biological proving ground," also tests methods of decontamination.

Bartling said he doesn't have any health problems now that he connects to his Dugway experience. In fact, he doesn't even use the VA for the five pills he takes for his heart.

"I'm not going to blame anything or anybody I don't know," Bartling said.

Bartling isn't holding his breath on getting any new information from anyone linked to the new Web site. What really "burns my tail," he said, is that troops didn't have a choice back in 1960, and if anyone had asked questions, "they wouldn't tell you the damn truth anyhow."

And they the military and government won't be held liable for anything, Bartling said.

"I understand needing tests," he said. "I don't understand not being accountable for a man's life afterward."

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com

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Page Modified: November 2, 2008