This week - NPR revealed that 60,000 World War II veterans were exposed to mustard gas while training in the U.S. and some are currently living in the Tampa Bay region.
The NPR investigation found that the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to keep its promise to help any of the mustard gas veterans who had permanent injuries. After the NPR investigation, the VA is again pledging to reach out to ensure exposed veterans are getting the benefits they’ve earned.
And the vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, has called for a hearing and offered his assistance to one of his constituents, John Tedesco of Pasco County.
Tedesco said he was part of the Navy's mustard gas experiments conducted at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in early 1944. He was 17 years old.
“We really didn’t know what was going on. We were young,” Tedesco said. “We got all kinds of shots. But I figured it was just normal, you know, routine.”
Now 88 years old, Tedesco doesn’t remember specifics of the mustard gas test, he does remember being checked by doctors and corpsmen at noon each day after the test for more than a week.
Some of his buddies from Company 92 at Great Lakes were able to give detailed accounts in a 1991 Erie, Pennsylvania newspaper article. It was published shortly after the U.S. Department of Defense declassified the mustard gas experiments.
“When I was back in Erie and I met some of the fellas, they said they were going to go put a claim in because they were all kind of sick too,” Tedesco said adding that his group went to the local veterans affairs office together to fill out paperwork and then to the VA for two days of tests. He said his claim was denied.
Tedesco said he developed breathing problems shortly after joining the Navy. He got out in May 1946 but didn’t go to the VA about his health issues until 1991 - more than four decades later.
“I was a carpenter and I was a builder, a small builder and I did that up until I quit,” Tedesco said. He retired at age 57. “You know I couldn’t stand – like if they’d be bulldozing on the job and making dust, I’d have to go home because I’d get sick. If they’d paint, I’d have to go home. Smells and that, they bother (me), my wife don’t wear perfume or anything because it bothers me.”
His wife of 67 years, Joan Tedesco, said her husband’s health problems were really bad when they lived in California in the 1960s.
“I used to rush him to the hospital all the time, he couldn’t breathe. Here they found out he was allergic to the redwood,” said Joan Tedesco. “We just loved it out there but there was no way we could stay, so we ended going back to Erie.”
Their son, Dr. John Tedesco, is a family physician practicing in Wesley Chapel. He also has vivid memories of when they lived in California.
“My father was in construction. They said he was having allergy problems but what it was it was asthma,” Dr. Tedesco said.
“His breathing was absolutely horrible. One time they had to call paramedics to come to the house because he couldn’t breathe and I remember them doing an intra-cardiac epinephrine shot,” Dr. Tedesco said. “As a little kid watching somebody stick a big needle into your father’s chest while he was lying on the ground because he can’t breathe, I’ll never forget that.”
He said his dad's breathing problems prevented him from even simple joys like playing sports with him.
Dr. Tedesco believes his father’s asthma is not due to allergies but instead related to his mustard gas exposure. He even wrote a letter to the VA to help his father file another mustard gas claim – that too was rejected.
After a while, the World War II veteran who spent 21 months in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea just gave up.
“You know, I feel they should have done something and they didn’t do anything,” Tedesco said.”We tried. They turned me down so many times I figured just let it go.”
Hearing of Tedesco’s plight, his member of congress, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, promised to help.
“We’re going to reach out to him and if he gives me permission to advocate on his behalf, I certainly will,” Bilirakis said.
The vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told NPR he's working on bringing in VA officials to testify, and has already requested a hearing.
Knowing what he knows now -- Tedesco says he’d volunteer to serve today if asked.
“It’s a good country. Yes, I would,” Tedesco said. “It’s the best country in the world.”