A 19-year U.S. Army program that tested defenses against biological and chemical weapons—populated chiefly by noncombatant Seventh-day Adventist volunteers—is remembered as a front line against a form of attack all too current in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The 30th anniversary of “Operation Whitecoat” was celebrated Oct. 3 to 5 at the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland. Operation Whitecoat was housed at Frederick’s Fort Detrick, which hosts the U.S. Army’s programs that create defenses against biological and chemical attacks. Beginning in 1954, Operation Whitecoat was a key program at the fort, testing and developing defenses for anthrax, yellow fever, Q-fever, tularemia and several forms of encephalitis.
Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, and Dr. Jan Paulsen, president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, were featured speakers for this group of veterans who returned to Fort Detrick.
DeLay spoke of the war against terrorism and said America once again turns to the Army installation, this time to protect against the terrible outcomes of biological and chemical attacks.
“Freedom will once again win,” DeLay noted, referring to previous battles and to the contributions of soldiers in Fort Detrick’s unique medical programs.
Noting that the majority of the 2,300 Operation Whitecoat volunteers were Adventists, Pastor Paulsen challenged the veterans to continue giving of themselves unselfishly.
“The Lord finds ways through you to express compassion,” he said. “Look for ways to give your time and energy to reach out to the lives of others.”
Many veterans say they were “just guys in the army.” “They make too much of us,” says Marnelle McNeilus, a Whitecoat veteran from 1969 through 1971.
“In the army, I was just serving my time,” says Dallas Pfeiffer, a Whitecoat in the 1960s. “Only afterward did I get to find out we did great things that affected the whole world, military and civilian.”
More than 150 veterans from 32 states came to celebrate both the 30th year of the end of the Whitecoat program and the 60th anniversary of Fort Detrick.
“You have been called human research subjects. You also have been called heroes,” says Dr. Frank Damazo, who hosted the reunion.
Col. James Romano, deputy director of Fort Detrick and a medical researcher for 30 years, says medical research always will involve people, and “the safety procedures used today are derived from the Whitecoat program.”
However, the primary contribution of the Whitecoat research program was to develop vaccines and treatment regimens for the biological warfare that was just arising in the 1950s.
Some of the Whitecoat volunteers worried about being in a dangerous program. “There was a certain fear factor while I was being tested,” says John Wilson, who still resides in Frederick. “But I trusted the scientists that tested us.”
The trust wasn’t misplaced, according to a study of approximately 25 percent of participants in the program, which was released this month. The Army surveyed the Whitecoat volunteers and found virtually no long-term negative effects on their health.
Dominic Dibiase from Silver Spring, Maryland, was part of the program in 1959. “We worked with anthrax; now it’s back in the spotlight,” he explains.
Ted Swain was drafted off the farm in Okeene, Oklahoma. He felt that he was taking the easy way out, serving in Operation Whitecoat instead of some foreign theater, and says: “I didn’t feel important until we heard about anthrax and the other forms of chemical and biological warfare recently.”
Col. Arthur Anderson from Fort Detrick first came to a 1998 Whitecoat reunion to tell the veterans about the fruits of their Whitecoat service—the treatments and vaccines for some of the deadliest diseases known to man.
“But I came away with a lot more—your stories of your bravery and courage. Thank you,” he says.