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Senators Call For VA To Explain Why It Couldn't Find Mustard-Gassed Veterans

A group of 12 U.S. senators is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to help World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard gas, after an NPR Investigation found the VA broke a decades-old promise to provide them compensation.

Last week, we reported that the VA had promised to contact about 4,000 veterans who were exposed to the chemical weapon during secret gas warfare tests in the 1940s. But in more than 20 years, the VA contacted only 610. Agency officials said they couldn't find the rest, but an NPR researcher located more than 1,200, living and dead, in two months.

NPR also found that many of the veterans who applied for benefits were denied, even though they met the VA's established criteria.

Tuesday the 12 senators — 11 Democrats and one Republican — wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald saying they found the reports "profoundly disturbing," and telling the VA "to take immediate and comprehensive steps to address this issue."

They called on the VA to contact as many of the mustard gas test subjects as it can and immediately assist them in getting benefits. They also said the agency should determine why it failed to contact the veterans earlier and explain why some of those who met the benefits criteria had been rejected.

The group of senators includes Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who also sits on the committee.

The VA acknowledged the letter in a statement to NPR, adding that it "appreciates the service and sacrifices of those World War II Veterans who may have been subject to mustard gas testing."

The statement said VA officials are "working in good faith with all stakeholders to do right by these veterans to ensure that they receive the benefits and services to which they are entitled."

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Caitlin Dickerson is an NPR News Investigative Reporter. She tackles long-term reporting projects that reveal hidden truths about the world, and contributes to breaking news coverage on NPR's flagship programs. Her work has been honored with some of the highest awards in broadcast journalism, including a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2015, Dickerson was also a finalist for the Livingston Award.