Four decades later, Frank Rochelle still has nightmares and memory loss that he blames on drug experiments performed on him by the US government during the Vietnam War.
And he can't forget the fiery red eyes of the 6-foot-tall white rabbit he thought was pursuing him during one of those forced hallucinations.
AdvertisementRochelle was one of the thousands of American soldiers who underwent chemical, biological and drug tests in the 1950s-1970s, during the Cold War.
Now he's part of a group of aging veterans suing the CIA and the US Army seeking recognition and health care -- but no money -- after years of being ignored.
"They pumped drugs into our veins that were turned down by the pharmaceutical companies. They used our bodies, we were guinea pigs," Rochelle said in a phone interview from his home in North Carolina.
"We were used and taken advantage of by the government. The country needs to step up to the plate and take care of these guys."
The suit was filed by the Vietnam Veterans of America in federal court in Oakland, California. A trial date has not yet been set.
The suit, prepared by the San Francisco-based law firm Morrison and Foerster, alleges "a chilling tale of human experimentation, covert military operations and heretofore unchecked abuses of power by our own government" and says the soldiers were used "in the same capacity as laboratory rats."
The government acknowledged existence of the secret testing program in Congressional hearings in the 1970s.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs issued a report in 2003 recommending medical help for troops who participated in the program, saying that 6,720 soldiers were treated with 254 types of chemicals and drugs -- including LSD, mustard gas and blistering agents such as tear gas.
The testing took place from 1950 until 1975, mostly at the Edgewood Arsenal, an Army compound near Baltimore, Maryland.
A government study in the 1980s concluded "that there was only a minimal likelihood of long-term health effects among the subjects of these experiments," though a later study found there was not enough information to draw any conclusions about long-term effects.
CIA spokesperson Marie Harf said her agency no longer conducts such experiments and said the CIA openly discussed its participation in MK-ULTRA, as the project was codenamed, during Senate hearings in 1975 and 1977.
"While I cannot comment on specific matters before the court, CIA activities related to MK-ULTRA have been thoroughly investigated, and the CIA fully cooperated with each of the investigations," Harf said in an e-mail to AFP.
"In addition, tens of thousands of pages from documents related to the program have been declassified and released to the public."
Rochelle, one of six servicemen named in the suit, was a 20-year-old farm boy from rural North Carolina when he was drafted into the Army in 1968.
He originally volunteered for a program to test military equipment, but then signed up for the drug program after being assured "what we were testing would not be harmful."
"I was a young country boy right off the farm and had worked in the fields all my life and didn't know anything about drugs," he said. "The only drugs I knew were cough syrup and stuff like that."
Rochelle says he was told to inhale a vapor that left him hallucinating for 2-3 days. He used a razor blade to try to cut the freckles off his face because he thought they were bugs crawling out of his skin.
After two months of such testing, he was sent off to fight in Vietnam.
He says volunteers were not told what they would be testing, and that promised medical follow-up was not provided. Rochelle says the government refused for decades to admit the program existed, preventing participants from getting help at veterans hospital.
He also says he never received a medal he was promised for participating in the program.
Now retired, the 61-year-old Rochelle says he suffers from sleep problems, breathing difficulty and anxiety, as well as short-term memory loss.
A father of two teenagers, he says the suit is an effort to force the government to notify Edgewood veterans about what was done to them, as well as to provide medical and psychological help to those who need it.
"This is not about money, it never was," he said. "We want accountability. We want the medals we were promised for helping out our country. And we want it to never happen again."