Secret Cold War program tested chemical and biological agents on 7,000 soldiers
Program vet Wray Forrest died in 2010 after he was diagnosed with heart trouble and cancer
Widow accuses VA of neglecting her ailing husband
VA wouldn't answer questions about the case due to a pending lawsuit
“I promised Wray I would never give up the fight.” It was a wife’s final pledge to her dying husband, who was once identified as Medical Volunteer No. 6692 at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland.
In 1973, Army Pvt. Wray Forrest spent two months at Edgewood as a volunteer human test subject in a top secret Cold War research program studying chemical and biological weapons.
His widow, Kathryn Forrest, says those tests were his undoing.
During his time at Edgewood, Wray participated in at least five different tests. In one, Kathryn says he was given high doses of Ritalin. In a deposition he gave before his death, Wray described the effect it had on him.
“It wound up making me want to do things very rapidly and in a rushed manner,” he says in the deposition. He says he was “wound up like a golf ball teed off in a tile bathroom. Bouncing off the walls.”
Ritalin is a Schedule II drug – a class of drugs considered dangerous and addictive. Large doses can cause dizziness, jitteriness, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke, high blood pressure, even sudden death. Wray was injected with various substances at Edgewood, according to court documents. And his story is just one of many.
In fact, from 1955 to 1975 more than 7,000 soldiers each spent two months at Edgewood. Overall, they tested at least 250 different chemical and biological agents.
The names and effects of these substances were largely unknown to these soldier volunteers. According to now declassified government documents, some were exposed to incapacitating drugs like BZ; or to sarin, an extremely toxic, potentially deadly substance that disrupts the nervous system; or to VX, a liquid neurotoxin considered one of the most dangerous chemicals created. Other exposures included tear gas, and hallucinogenics like LSD.
The men were sworn to secrecy and told to never discuss Edgewood Arsenal or the experiments that went on there with anyone.
The Army suspended the research program in 1975.
Fresh out of high school
Born and raised in the tiny southeastern Georgia town of Guyton, Wray was just 17 and fresh out of high school when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1967. After two years as an airman he immediately joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
There, after noticing flyers about Edgewood, he met with program representatives who said they were looking for soldiers to test Army gear, vehicles, and military combat equipment.
The duty sounded attractive: a four-day work week with three-day weekends, no duty assignments other than testing the equipment, Wray says in the deposition. “It was only after we got to Edgewood Arsenal that they mentioned they would be using drugs.”
There were no warnings about side effects or potential long-term health risks, according to Wray’s deposition. Although he wasn’t forced to take the drugs, he was “given an option of not taking the test, but with innuendos – with the option of bad punishment if we did not participate,” he says in the deposition transcript.
Of all the events that took place during Wray’s time at Edgewood, Kathryn says one disturbing memory he told her about that stuck with him for more than three decades:
Wray and eight others were taken to a clinic room and told to lie on cots, where they were hooked up to IVs and left alone, Kathryn says. Within 5 minutes he was so high he could not find his legs, he told her. “Then he said it felt like the bed was floating off of the floor – and then the pain hit.”
He described it as a “terrible, terrible headache, so bad he could not open his eyes, so bad he was just screaming in pain,” making him throw up several times.
A man in a nearby bunk was “trying to claw his own eyes out” – until Wray and another volunteer managed to get out of their bunks, crawl over to the panicking man and stop him, he told her.
“And while all of this going on, there was a nurse standing in the corner – she was taking notes. She made no attempt to aid this gentleman,” says Kathryn.
For days afterward, he was “completely disoriented and terrified the pain would begin again,” Kathryn says.
It was like he was ‘coming apart’
After returning home, Wray felt “his lungs were never right,” and suggested it was because of exposure to certain gases at Edgewood, according to Kathryn.
He also developed post-tramautic stress disorder (PTSD). “The VA diagnosed me as having PTSD,” and a VA psychologist told him part of the PTSD “was linked to Edgewood Arsenal,” he says in a deposition.
Wray started suffering severe migraine headaches, says Kathryn. Worse, she says it was then that he was diagnosed with bundle branch block, which is a delay or blockage in the cardiac electrical system that regulates heart beat.
Bundle branch block can be a serious condition. Most people don’t have symptoms and it often requires no direct treatment, but it can cause a slow heart rate, heart arrhythmia, even cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death.
By 1982, Wray Forrest left the military after a 16-year career. He was honorably discharged at the rank of Sgt. 1st Class.
Then, in 1997, he had his first stroke.
In 2000, he suffered a second stroke.
After Kathryn first met Wray in 2001, she watched him struggle with his health. It felt “like he was literally just coming apart.”
The man she knew who loved to fish, loved a good joke, loved to laugh; the man who loved children and would give people the shirt off his back, the artist who liked to dabble in oil painting and sculpture, was wasting away.
The Forrests left Guyton in 2004 and moved to Colorado, where they sought treatment at the VA clinics in Colorado Springs and the Denver VA Medical Center for skin lesions on Wray’s face.
Kathryn was suspicious that caregivers’ diagnosis of Wray’s ailments was intentionally dismissive and affected by their knowledge that he served at Edgewood.
After seeking help several times for her husband’s skin lesions at Colorado VA hospitals, Kathryn put her foot down.
“I just stepped in and said, ‘You absolutely biopsy these’ – and they finally did – and sure enough he had skin cancer on his face,” she says.
In 2007, Wray Forrest received a VA letter about his service at Edgewood. (Read the letter [PDF])
The letter allowed Wray to modify his secrecy pledge and tell his health care providers about Edgewood – related to exposure to chemicals. But the letter prohibited him from discussing “anything that relates to operational information that might reveal chemical or biological warfare vulnerabilities or capabilities.”
But Kathryn says, “every time he would go they would see the notation on his chart that he was an Edgewood Arsenal test subject and they would blow him off no matter what the complaint was.”
The VA, when confronted with Kathryn’s allegation that Wray had received substandard treatment at its facilities in Colorado, declined to comment, citing a pending lawsuit.
Forrest joined five other Edgewood veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America in a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and the CIA.
The lawsuit asks that the secrecy oath the men and women took be lifted. It calls for full disclosure of the drugs they received including the dosage and known health effects.
It also asks for health care and treatment. The men are not suing for any financial compensation.
“I have seen animals at shelters get better care than Wray received from the VA,” Kathryn says.
He began suffering from persistent hoarseness in 2009, Kathryn says, recalling he couldn’t speak above a whisper.
A VA clinic in Colorado Springs told Wray he was fine during three visits regarding the problem. At the Denver facility’s emergency room, she said caregivers “stuck a tongue depressor in his mouth, told him to say ‘ahhh,’ told him he had a sore throat, go home and gargle with salt water.”
Frustrated, the Forrests sought help from private physician Dr. Daniel Ward who had treated Forrest in 2004 for type-2 diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Wray “expressed frustration with the VA system’s care,” Ward says. “How cumbersome it was to navigate the system. They needed to know more information, why he wasn’t feeling well.”
Ward discussed possible links between Edgewood and Wray Forrest’s health problems, the doctor says.
“Exposure to such chemicals as he had been exposed to at Edgewood Arsenal certainly could cause some of the health problems that he experienced,” Ward tells CNN. “We know that exposure to certain chemicals can predispose one to diabetes later in life.”
A three-volume report produced in the 1980s about the long-term health of Edgewood vets decided there wasn’t enough information to reach “definitive conclusions.” The report came out of the Institute of Medicine, an independent nonprofit health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
In a written statement to CNN, the Defense Department says it “has made it a priority to identify all service members exposed to chemical and biological substances … and the VA has contacted and offered free medical evaluations to thousands of veterans.”
CNN repeatedly asked VA officials for the agency’s side of the story regarding Kathryn’s allegations. Every time officials cited the pending litigation, declining to discuss the care Wray Forrest received in Colorado. “We cannot discuss this veteran’s case with you,” the VA responded.
“I’ll tell you quite frankly,” says Kathryn, “as far as I’m concerned the Veterans Administration killed him.”
The official diagnosis came in January 2009: squamous cell carcinoma of the lungs and lymph nodes. Skin cancer.
It strikes 700,000 Americans each year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, taking the lives of about 2,500.
By the time Ward diagnosed it, the disease had progressed so far that it was too late to save Wray by the only way possible – cutting out part or all of his cancerous lung, the doctor said.
Even though Forrest was a heavy smoker most of his life, Kathryn feels that with better medical care, things would have turned out differently.
One last sacrifice, one small victory
Finally, Kathryn watched her husband come to terms with the circumstances surrounding his own death.
Despite his long military career, including two months as a human guinea pig for secret drug and chemical research, Wray Forrest wanted to offer society one more sacrifice.
He would donate his body to the University of Colorado Medical School.
“If by splicing and dicing me they can find out something that can save another persons life, particularly another veteran, then let them have at it, I don’t need it,’” Kathryn recalls her husband saying.
The Forrests did win a small victory of sorts.
Edgewood released some of Wray’s medical records after the Forrests filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
But Kathryn says secrets remain buried because the documents don’t reveal everything Wray was exposed to.
She says the government is protecting itself “from the scandal of how these men have been used, abused and thrown away.”
In Kathryn’s opinion, the Edgewood vets are patriots – a word she says she doesn’t use lightly. “They did this to serve their country and they were used. It is not right that they should have to suffer this way.”
“It’s not just a mess, it’s a crime,” Kathryn says angrily. “A crime against our own citizens.”
On August 31, 2010, after spending five months in a hospice facility in Colorado Springs, Wray Forrest died.
He was two months shy of his 62nd birthday.
Now Kathryn is planning to take Wray’s role as a plaintiff in the VA lawsuit. As her battle cry, she often remembers one of the last things her husband said before he died.
“Keep fighting,” she recalls him saying. “Don’t let the bastards that killed me win.”