U.S. government grants Macon veteran big victory, family says still more to be done
Macon, Mo. —
90 year-old World War II veteran Arla Harrell of Macon, Missouri and his family have fought for over 25 years for medical benefits from the United States government. That battle is coming to a close with a bill signed into law by President Donald Trump.
"We knew we were fighting for a bigger cause, and I guess that's why we kept on. That's what mom and dad have taught us," said Arla’s daughter Beverly Howe.
Harrell was exposed to mustard gas by the U.S. military while training as a soldier in Camp Crowder, located in southern Missouri, during World War II. This led to a lifetime of respiratory issues.
"He always had trouble breathing, so he couldn't get out and do some of the things that other people did like mow the lawn,” said Arla’s wife Betty.
Harrell was promised medical benefits by the U.S. military, but was placed under a vow of secrecy. This vow was lifted in the early 90s. Harrell kept his promise until his respiratory issues brought him to a veteran’s hospital. Medical personnel noticed his issues were related to mustard gas exposure and notified him that he could discuss what happened as the vow was lifted.
"I said, 'Dad. Why didn't you tell us? He said, ‘I couldn't. They would've put me in prison,’’" said Arla’s daughter Trish Ayers.
Recently, Arla's sister was notified that Harrell was exposed to the gas agent. According to the family, she had no idea, but knew something was wrong when her brother returned home from war.
The family said Veterans Affairs denied their claims a total of seven times, and the government has gone as far as saying mustard gas experiments on soldiers never happened at the camp Harrell trained at.
"We have good faith, the both of us, and we have a lot of faith in God. He's helped strengthen us through everything. He's just been with us," Betty said.
After more than 25 years of work to have the U.S. government acknowledge these events, the family overcame the biggest hurdle with the help of United States Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
The Arla Harrell Act, a bill championed by the senator for two years, made it through Congress and was signed by President Trump in August.
"I was almost afraid to believe it," Betty said.
"It took that long for our country to make right to those soldiers," Howe said.
Howe and her siblings took on the burden of trying to find the proof that Veterans Affairs required when the task became too difficult for their aging parents.
"It was like somebody had taken 100 pounds off the top of my shoulders and thrown it away," Howe said.
The Arla Harrell Act accepts all claims previously made by World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas.
"It's nice to see him recognized now. You know, he was always recognized as a veteran, but now I think people understand how much he gave," Ayers said.
The flag that flew over the capital when the bill was signed now lays neatly folded in his nursing home room.
"He just brightened up, and I knew he knew what was going on," said Betty.
The biggest hurdle has passed, but the family says there is still more to be done.
Howe said contrary to reports of the recent windfall, the sum received is not an enormous amount.
"It only granted a small percentage, and it does not even cover his nursing home costs,” Howe said.
Harrell was only approved for 30-percent disability.
"We're going to see that [the government does] the right thing for mom and dad and for any other veterans that are living," Howe said.
"When I'm happy, he's happy and the same way. When he's not happy I'm not either, and you know, yeah. I think things will be alright," Betty said.
The Harrell family hopes that their story inspires others in similar situations from other U.S. conflicts to continue to fight for what they believe is right.