'I believe you:' Words WWII veteran has waited 25 years to hear
MACON, Mo. —
Arla Harrell of Macon was purposely exposed to mustard gas by the U.S. Military when he was a soldier during World War II. Bound by a vow of secrecy until 1991, the Harrell family is now fighting the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) with the help of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
The Harrell family said Arla was offered a deal by the military 72 years ago. The VA has made it difficult for veterans to claim benefits due to mustard gas. Ninety-percent of all claims are denied. Forty veterans are receiving benefits from being exposed.
A 25-year-long battle has ensued for medical benefits once the vow of secrecy was lifted.
Due to Harrell and 16 million other servicemen’s medical files being partially or completely destroyed, the VA has placed the burden of proof on those very soldiers.
Harrell's wife, Betty Harrell, had no idea what had happened during his time at Camp Crowder, the place where he was exposed to the chemical agent.
“When I found out, I was very angry about it. I still am,” Betty said.
His family was accustomed to his respiratory problems and didn’t understand why medication didn’t help.
“They gave him a bunch of things that he could use, but they never helped. He’d leave them in the drawer,” Betty said.
Various products were not allowed to be used in the house.
“I sometimes got very angry because my father would not let me wear perfume or hairspray … I understand now,” said Harrell’s daughter, Beverly Howe.
Howe said she retired to devote her time to researching, filing forms and preparing appeals to the VA.
A letter-writing campaign began. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, responded.
“I made up my mind it was unacceptable, and I was going to work and work and work until I got him the benefits he deserved after what he’s been through,” McCaskill said.
Testifying in Congress twice, McCaskill is working to pass the Arla Wayne Harrell Act. Before she met him, she told KTVO she wanted to let him know the U.S. government "believes him."
The bill was added to the Senate Annual Defense Bill. McCaskill said she is confident that it will pass now that it will be given a vote on the floor.
“We know it’s less than 400 people [who] could potentially benefit from this bill. Sometimes it’s hard to get those kind of issues the attention they deserve,” McCaskill said.
This week, McCaskill met Arla and his family for the first time at his nursing home in Macon during a pits top of her town hall tour crossing many cities across Missouri.
“There have been days that are hard. There have been days I’ve not been so good as I am today. Today is a good day for my father and for our country, that my father is being recognized as well as other veterans are being recognized. Our country is finally saying ‘thank you,’” Howe said.
If the bill passes, it will head to the House and finally to the president to sign into law.