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Tucson Weekly Waiting To Exhale

What Happened To Charles Ashby Was A Crime--One The Government Won't Admit To.

By Emil Franzi

CHARLES ASHBY, A 77-year-old survivor of World War II chemical warfare experiments, knows that probably nothing will be done to ease his suffering at this late date in his life. But he just wants people to know what the government did to him--maybe, he says, it will help the next guy who gets into the same situation.

Ashby's U.S. Army service began in 1942. A good soldier, he was picked for Officer's Candidate School, and in 1943 he was sent to Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, to train in the Chemical Warfare Service.

Gas warfare had been outlawed after World War I, but every nation kept mammoth supplies of chemical weapons and people to handle them. And each nation studied how to defend against them and how to improve their effectiveness--just in case the enemy changed their minds about using them. Which is how Ashby's problem began.

Towards the end of his OCS training, he and about 20 others were selected for exposure to both mustard gas and another gas, called Lewisite, designed to affect the respiratory system. Ashby and several others protested, but were told they'd be disciplined if they didn't follow orders, making it clear those selected were not volunteers.

They were told the reason for the exposure was to familiarize them with substances they would be handling--obviously a lie, since only a few soldiers were selected for this exercise.

A drop of mustard gas was placed on each soldier's skin. Ashby recalls his skin puffed up. Then they were ordered to remove their watches and other jewelry and were placed in a gas chamber, where they were exposed to the Lewisite.

While they all wore gas masks, none were tightly clothed, and none wore gloves. After a few minutes, they were ordered to pull their masks back and take a whiff. That sickened many.

After leaving the chamber, Ashby, who'd forgotten to remove his belt buckle, observed the copper had darkened.

Within a few days Ashby was hospitalized with breathing problems. He was told others had similar symptoms, but none of the others in his group were hospitalized with him--to this day he doesn't know who else was affected. During his weeks in the hospital, he was advised by an Army doctor that unless he planned on a career as an chemical warfare officer, he'd best get out of the Army before they killed him. And, the doctor advised him, he'd better plan on living in southern Arizona or New Mexico--where the air was easier on damaged lungs--for the rest of his life.

Also, Army brass told him he'd have to start Officer's Candidate School over again. Ashby declined and was ultimately discharged with a 10 percent disability for medical reasons in September 1944. He had risen to the rank of T4, equivalent to today's sergeant. A year after granting the disability claim, the Army rescinded it, calling the whole thing a "mistake."

He landed an office job with the mines in Morenci, later moved to Phoenix, and by the early '50s was managing the New York Life Insurance office in Tucson, later opening his own agency here. In 1985 he attended a seminar in Costa Rica, met his current wife, Emilia, and spent almost a decade living there.

He never filed a disability claim until 1993, and then only after reading about the mounting evidence that the U.S. government had used--and abused--many military and civilian personnel over the years with chemical and biological experiments. Emilia explains her husband's delayed reaction by reminding us that Americans of his generation believed their government and tended to do what they were told.

What Ashby may have lacked in timeliness he's made up for in militancy. His lengthy memos to elected officials and bureaucrats contain scathing denunciations of both past and present government practices.

The Veteran's Administration gave his claim a cursory glance. He was sent to a VA doctor in Phoenix, whom he claims didn't even examine him, only asked questions. The doctor's conclusion was that his claim was "possible"--not good enough for bennies.

And Ashby's claim is further muddied by a 1973 fire in the St. Louis depository of veteran's records. Part of his file was destroyed and photocopies of what remains have burned edges. Those copies were finally secured by the office of Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders. (Ashby and Emilia spent two years in Vermont, where she secured her American law degree.) A blunt but realistic Sanders staffer told Ashby he should realize nobody cares about WWII vets any more because they're all dying off and no longer have any political clout.

Last year, Ashby and his wife returned to Tucson. In June, the appeal of his benefits denial was remanded to the Phoenix VA office for further study. He has run ads in several veterans' publications, looking for others with similar stories, and trying to find someone who can verify portions of his military history. He's had no luck with the latter, but he found two other veterans with similar experiences as gas guinea pigs and a retired Army nurse who treated some of the cases. He theorizes other former soldiers in the same situation may have died prematurely. Ashby says even after all these years, he still suffers from constantly recurring respiratory problems and skin rashes.

There's little doubt Ashby is telling the truth--the circumstantial evidence alone is overwhelming. Considering the apology President Bill Clinton recently offered to civilian victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and the known deals made with vicious Japanese and German researchers in trade for their World War II experimental data, the real question in Ashby's case is whether we have a cover-up of callous stupidity, or an even worse case of moral bankruptcy involving deliberate experimentation on our own troops.

Either way, the real motivation in the federal government's denial of benefits to people like Charles Ashby extends far beyond the relatively minor cost--after all, there aren't many survivors left. No, the real issue is 'fessing up to some very dark pages in American history.

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