US servicemembers pictured from behind, saluting

“Homecoming” to a History of Servicemember Experimentation

Much ado has been made about Amazon’s new hit, “Homecoming,” which recently received three Golden Globe nominations, including one for best drama series. The psychological thriller, directed by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts, has been characterized as “an irresistible mystery-box drama” and “the good kind of ‘what the hell is going on here?’ TV.” Tim Goodman described the show, which was adopted from Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s Gimlet Mediacult hit” podcast of the same moniker, as a “dazzling” play “on memory, the military industrial complex, conspiracy and unchecked government privilege.”

The series revolves around novice caseworker Heidi Bergman’s (Roberts) experiences administering the Tampa, Florida-based Homecoming Transitional Support Center (HTSC). HTSC is a privately-run, Department of Defense (DoD) contract facility, which purports to assist combat-traumatized servicemembers readjust from the battlefield and reintegrate to civilian life. Indeed, Bergman opens the drama’s aptly-titled pilot, “Mandatory,” by explaining to her “client,” three-tour-combat-veteran Walter Cruz (Stephan James), that the treatment facility is “a safe space for you to process your military experience and re-familiarize yourself with civilian life in a monitored environment, which, just means getting you situated now that you’re back home, rear-wise, health-wise, basically, I just work for you.”

As the series slowly but inevitably reveals, little could be further from the truth. Bergman neither works for Cruz nor his combat veteran contemporaries situated at the facility. Rather, she is a pawn of government-contracting corporate conglomerate Geist, which is covertly drugging the HTSC servicemembers in an effort to prove that the company is armed with the pharmacological capability to erase combat-trauma-related memories and, thereby, create a readily re-deployable army of super-soldiers.

Homecoming’s” deliberately-paced unravelling of HTSC’s sinister scheme makes Cruz’s opening salvo, during which he concedes his eagerness to participate in the program so as to not “pollute things here with my stress, my problems,” all the more heartbreaking as the series proceeds to its climax.

Homecoming has been described as everything from a “forward-thinking mind trip” with elements “bordering on science fiction” to “mid-century macabre” that “clearly references a bygone era—the 1950s, when America’s growing military-industrial bureaucracy provoked fears of surveillance, repression, and a state dangerously empowered by devastating new technologies.” For at least some veteran viewers, however, the series is “macabre” not because of the fictive dystopian world it imagines (or re-imagines) but because of its realistic invocation of American servicemembers’ well-documented government-inflicted trauma.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will examine those “Homecoming-esque traumas and their confounding, anti-servicemember legal ramifications. The focus of this inaugural post is the United States’ horror-inducing history of conducting health-harming, non-consensual chemical and pharmacological experiments on servicemembers and the virtually non-existent legal rights that attend to those veterans.

The United States Armed Forces have conducted human experiments subjecting military servicemembers to a panoply of toxic substances since the inception of the U.S. chemical weapons program. During World War II, the United States Chemical Warfare Service conducted secret chemical weapons experiments on approximately 60,000 active duty servicemembers without their informed consent in order to assess the effectiveness of gas masks and other protective equipment. According to the Centers for Disease Control, mustard gas exposure can lead to severe adverse health outcomes, including third-degree burns, permanent blindness, increased risk for lung or respiratory cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and death.

The United States kept the mustard gas experiments secret for nearly 50 years until veteran whistleblowers began to come forward in the early 1990s. This was accomplished by swearing the servicemembers to secrecy, threatening them with a dishonorable discharge and military imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and releasing them with no follow-up care.

As victim Charlie Cavell has candidly explained, the United States military “put the fear of God in just a bunch of young kids” to ensure the public remained in the dark about the experiments and their health effects. As a 1993 National Academy of Sciences report succinctly concludes: “there can be no question that some veterans, who served our country with honor and at great personal cost were mistreated twice—first, in the secret testing and second, by the official denials that lasted for decades.”

The American national security apparatus also has conducted pharmacological experiments on U.S. troops. In 1950, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) initiated the “Homecoming”-esque Project ARTICHOKE/BLUEBIRD, which involved the secret dosing of over 7,000 American servicemembers with a wide-range of psychoactive substances, including LSD, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, PCP, mescaline, and peyote, without their informed consent at Maryland’s Edgewood Arsenal and other locations. In a January 22, 1954 Manchurian Candidate-style memorandum, the CIA revealed that the Project was developed to ascertain whether “an individual of [redacted] descent [can] be made to perform an act of attempted assassination involuntarily under the influence of ARTICHOKE.”

Other declassified CIA documents depict the Project’s central purpose as the development of unconventional techniques, such as “drugs and chemicals, hypnosis, and ‘total isolation’” to produce amnesia and other vulnerable states of mind to control “an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self preservation.” More than 1,000 of the ARTICHOKE/BLUEBIRD servicemembers suffered severe mental illnesses, and many attempted suicide.

Worse yet, the United States is insulated from liability for these experiments under the much-maligned Feres Doctrine. The Doctrine, which derives its name from the 1950 United States Supreme Court case, Feres v. United States, precludes servicemembers from suing the government under the Federal Torts Claims Act for injuries and illnesses sustained while on active duty. In fact, the United States Supreme Court expressly ruled in 1987 that former U.S. Army Sergeant James B. Stanley, whose life “disintegrated after he was unwittingly tested” with LSD in the 1950s as part of the Edgewood Arsenal experiments, was precluded from suing U.S. Army for damages under Feres.

Moreover, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to deny disability compensation to veterans exposed to mustard gas and subject to other government-sanctioned drug and chemical experimentation. Once the mustard gas trials were declassified, VA promised “to locate about 4,000 men who were used in the most extreme tests, and to compensate those who had permanent injuries,” including chronic bronchitis, skin cancer, and leukemia. As a 2015 NPR investigation exposed, however, VA entirely failed to fulfill those promises. Former CIA Director Ross Porter has publicly conceded that VA grossly mishandled the mustard gas veterans’ claims.

In other words, “Homecoming” is terrifying because it embraces the truth. The United States has long used American servicemembers as guinea pigs under the guise of national security. The federal courts have created a legal doctrine that insulates the government from liability for such servicemember abuse. And the VA has consistently abdicated its duty to veteran victims, many of who have died of debilitating diseases linked to their chemical and drug exposure without compensation.

Needless to say, it is high time for the federal courts to revisit Feres.

American veterans ought to be entitled to sue their government, which they have well-served, for the injuries and illnesses it has inflicted on them by involuntary experimentation. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained in her Stanley dissent, “conduct of the type alleged in this case is so far beyond the bounds of human decency that as a matter of law it simply cannot be considered a part of the military mission” and, therefore, “[n]o judicially crafted rule should insulate [the government] from liability [for its] involuntary and unknowing human experimentation” on its own troops.

Until a majority of the Supreme Court adopts O’Connor’s reasoning, however, it’ll be “welcome ‘Homecoming,’ veterans.”

Jennifer Oliva

Jennifer Oliva

Jennifer Oliva is an Associate Professor at West Virginia University College of Law and School of Public Health. In the College of Law, she teaches torts, evidence, and public health law courses and directs the Veterans Advocacy Clinic. She is a Visiting Scholar at the Petrie-Flom Center.

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