Retired optician Eric Muth Considered a Military 'Hero'
MANNY STRUMPF, Correspondent November 16, 2006
To those who know Eric Muth and frequented his business, Park Lane Opticians in downtown Milford, he is a hard-working entrepreneur whose reputation extends from Broad Street throughout New Haven and Fairfield counties, the Naugatuck Valley and beyond.
Ophthalmologists throughout southern Connecticut frequently referred their patients to him for eyeglasses because of his honesty and professionalism.
However, few, if any, of Muth's customers and friends, or the physicians who referred patients to him, were ever aware of the physical sacrifices Muth made for this country during his military career in the late 1950s.
His pursuits following the military have been varied. In addition to owning and operating the successful optical business that he purchased in 1979 from his mentor and former employer, Ernest Smith, Muth wrote two textbooks that became standard texts in colleges and universities from coast to coast. He also contributed numerous articles to professional journals here and abroad.
When he retired and sold Park Lane Opticians in 2002, he donated his collection of close to 1,000 antique and rare eyeglasses - some of which had belonged to noted individuals and some that dated back to the 18th century -to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and other museums in the United States and Europe.
As a businessman, Muth also was innovative. At one time there were three opticians in downtown Milford, but Muth eventually purchased a competitor's business on River Street, and the other closed after 17 years.
Putting himself at risk
Before the business world, military life absorbed Muth. His aforementioned sacrifices resulted from his volunteering to become a "victim" of government experiments on brainwashing techniques, both physical and chemical.
These experiments were authorized by the Department of Defense, orchestrated by Army Intelligence, funded by the CIA and conducted by the Army Chemical Corps, according to Muth. The programs and experiments were so risky that several of the 250 men who were test subjects died.
"I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to lead a normal life, raise normal children and enjoy my career and family, although I have permanent physical disabilities that are attributable to my military career," Muth said, though he declined to specify or elaborate on those disabilities.
Muth received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1959. The experiments were so secret, however, that it wasn't until the spring of 2004, some 45 years later, that a former high-ranking government official who participated in administration of these experiments acknowledged his contributions.
Colonel Albert Dreisbach, director of medical research at the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Laboratories in Maryland, wrote the following to then-Private Muth in June 1958:
"I wish to thank you and express my appreciation for your participation in the military volunteer research program conducted by this Directorate. You have successfully completed all phases of the experiments to which you subjected yourself. The results of these experiments were of a critical nature and highly important to this Directorate and to the Chemical Corps.
"You volunteered with the understanding that no consideration of any sort would be granted for this service. Your cooperativeness and performance of duties while acting as a subject are duly recognized and appreciated.
"You are hereby commended for exposing yourself to the experiments above and beyond the call of duty. Your performance and behavior are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service."
Forty years later, on July 2, 1998, the Rev. Albert Dreisbach Jr. of East Point, Ga., Col. Dreisbach's son, wrote to then-Sen. Max Cleland that "...years after my father's death, I learned that he had sought psychiatric counsel to deal with the internal conflict resulting from his oath as an officer to follow orders versus his previous oath as a doctor of medicine with regard to the research on human beings conducted at Edgewood under his command.
"As I began to recall some of our conversations after I had been discharged as an artillery officer in the Marine Corps and ordained as an Episcopal priest, I remember his discussing tests on a U.S. Army artillery battery at Fort Bragg, N.C., wherein LSD was introduced into the water supply of that unit to see what effect it might have on impairing the functional ability of those troops. He went on to say that he could not discuss same with me at the time because such information was then classified. The time period of this discussion was in the early '60s when LSD was the drug choice of hippies.
"...Regretfully, through the years, I have learned that the government, which I was raised to respect, serve and defend, has not always been truthful in its dealings with its citizenry. While I understand and respect the need for secrecy in the interest of national security, I also have a personal and professional commitment to ethics and justice.
"It is my belief that Mr. Eric Muth as a volunteer put his life at risk above and beyond the call of duty and rightfully deserves both the recognition and medals of honor even some 40 years after his actual service. We both well know that 'Justice delayed is justice denied.'"
Several years later, on July 24, 2004, Dr. Arthur Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, issued the following statement:
"I am writing to call attention to the heroic behavior and sacrifice made by Eric Muth of Milford, Conn., in service to this nation. He answered this nation's call by his participation in highly risky medical experiments at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Md., in the late 1950s. I have no doubt he was motivated to participate in experiments by patriotism, his desire to help his fellow Americans and to benefit the common good.
"Department of Defense has done little to recognize those who gave much through their willing, voluntary participation in these dangerous experiments. This can be rectified. It would be fitting to acknowledge his participation and sacrifice through the awarding of the appropriate medal, commendation or award. ... This would help bring closure to this era of medical experimentation during the time when this nation was engaged in a life-or-death Cold War struggle.
"It is my opinion that Mr. Muth's heroism is deserving of commendation and acknowledgement by his government and the armed forces that he so ably served. It is the kind of heroism that should be honored so that those who will be asked to serve this nation know what those who preceded them in service did. I am writing in the hope that justice can be done for Eric Muth."
Muth modestly confides that he eventually received nine awards from the military. The highest award was the Army Commendation Medal.
"I never said anything to anyone about my military career, since we were sworn to secrecy," Muth said.
To a question about his motivation for volunteering, Muth responded, "Weren't you 17 at one point in your life and willing to take risks and chances?"
Even now, almost a half-century after the secret experiments, Muth is reluctant to reveal much about what took place. A Government Accounting Office report in 1994, which the Mirror obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, acknowledges that during Word War II and the Cold War era, the Department of Defense and other national security agencies conducted or sponsored extensive radiological, chemical and biological research programs. Part of the report states:
"Precise information on the number of tests, experiments and participants is not available and the exact numbers may never be known. However, we have identified hundreds of...tests and experiments in which people were used as test subjects. These tests and experiments often involved hazardous substances such as radiation, blister and nerve agents, and biological agents...In some cases, basic safeguards to protect the people were either not in place or not followed."
(This reporter read the 1994 transcript that states further: "some tests and experiments were conducted in secret; others involved the use of people without their knowledge or consent or their full knowledge of the risks involved.")
The report continues, "The effects of the tests and experiments are often difficult to determine. Although some participants suffered immediate acute injuries and some died, in other cases adverse health problems were not discovered until many years later - often 20 to 30 years or longer."
Muth's role as a volunteer in these experiments is further documented by retired Army Col. Bernard G. Elfert, who now lives in Florida. He wrote in August 2004: "volunteer participants in the Edgewood Arsenal testing programs [which included Muth] deserve suitable recognition for their outstanding and exceptional service to programs then considered vital to the National Defense ...Justice demands suitable recognition for their acts of bravery. These men patriotically, admirably and courageously served this Nation in exceptional ways."
Immigrated as a child
Eric Muth was born in Munich to German parents. His parents divorced and his mother remarried an American GI from Bridgeport. They came to the U.S. in 1948 when he was 7 years old and settled in Bridgeport, where his stepfather owned a business.
Muth's brother still lives in Stratford, as does his 88-year-old mother.
Muth attended local schools but dropped out of high school when he was 17 to enlist in the Army. He was honorably discharged two years later and went to work as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense in 1960.
"I was assigned to the National Guard and wore a uniform," he said. "My first assignment was at the former NIKE Site on Eel's Hill off New Haven Avenue in Milford." When that site closed he transferred to nuclear Hercules missile site in Ansonia, and later to Texas.
After returning to Milford, he applied for jobs with the local fire and police department, and was offered a position as a dispatcher at fire headquarters on New Haven Avenue. A short time later he was offered a job with the police department and, while he held down the fire dispatcher's position he also became a supernumerary police officer.
"While working as a police officer, I became friendly with Ernest Smith, who had recently opened Park Lane Opticians on Broad Street," Muth recalled. "I guess he saw some potential in me and offered me a secure job as an apprentice with his store so that I could learn a trade. I apprenticed with Mr. Smith under the GI Bill, eventually went to work for him, and became a licensed optician in 1972 at age 32. I bought him out in 1979 and I owned and operated the optical business until my retirement in 2002."
Being an optician on Broad Street brought many benefits, such as meeting the woman who would become his wife.
"Rachel worked at another downtown store," he said. "We were married in 1971 and have two children."
Ernie Smith and Eric Muth got along well except on one occasion when they had a major disagreement.
"It was in the '60s and an eyeglass salesman came into the store to show me beautifully engraved, gold-filled frames in their original packaging. I saw an opportunity and placed a large order for them without telling Mr. Smith. Ernie was not happy with me but soon changed his mind when sales went through the roof."
The retired optician has many fond memories of downtown Milford.
"I received my high school equivalency certificate while in the Army and eventually earned bachelor's and graduate degrees while working at Park Lane," he said. "I thought I finally arrived, but there were still customers who would always ask for the 'older man'. I decided, therefore, that whenever someone asked me how old I was, I would say 57. They were always amazed at how young I looked.
"When I turned 57, on the other hand, my stock answer was that I was actually 35. No more amazement at how I looked," he chuckled.
His experiences and customers have left a permanent impression on him. "My eyes still glisten when I read obituaries of former clients," he said. "Moments of joy also include running into and chatting with old clients when I walk around town or go to the fitness center. I remember downtown Milford as few can.
"The Harrisons of the hardware store always came in to chat and, of course, the Park Lane Restaurant was owned by a dear couple, Jack and Betty Friedman. Jack's corned beef sandwiches and Betty's homemade rice pudding were the best. And there were many mom-and-pop stores where you could find most products you needed."
Muth also directly contributed to the excitement of downtown. On one occasion, he braved the ice under the bridge behind the former Capital Theatre on Daniel Street to pull two skaters out of the water.
"I recall cradling and calming one of the women with her head on my lap in the middle of Broad Street," he said. "As crowds gathered, someone shouted, 'Look at her ankle, she's got a compound fracture.' The only word that came to mind was 'idiot.'"
He subsequently was invited to Philadelphia to receive the Opticians Association of America Distinguished Member Award for his lifesaving effort. A young woman flung her arms around Muth and kissed him. "My wife was with me and I said to myself, 'Oh boy, am I in trouble now,'" he said.
Then he realized the young woman who had kissed him was thanking him for being her inspiration to become an optician, having read his articles in professional journals and magazines when she was a receptionist, and then reading his textbooks while she was training to become an optician.
There also have been sad moments, such as when a senior citizen left Park Lane Opticians, stopped for coffee at a downtown restaurant, then ventured toward the green, where she was run over and dragged under a vehicle. "Seeing her final winter breath exhaled was very sad," Muth recalled.
On another occasion a 21-year-old newlywed who worked at another downtown store mentioned to Muth that she recently had been diagnosed with a rare blood disease. Within a week she was dead.
There were more incidents that stuck in his mind. "As a parent, I was saddened to have to make a duplicate pair of glasses for the mother of a boy who was incarcerated in a state prison. On the other hand, it was gratifying to send a pair of glasses with the color changing lenses to a former Boy Scout from my troop who was serving in Vietnam.
"I was contacted on another occasion by a former Eagle Scout in Milford who had graduated from West Point and was serving at the American Embassy in Cairo," he related. "My son and I accepted his invitation to fly to Egypt, where the colonel thanked me for being his inspiration to join the Army. This was a humbling experience for me."
The retired optician and businessman is able to cite many other interesting experiences during his lengthy civilian career. "A local clergyman, for example, broke a lens in his glasses as he fell and died. I received an order to fabricate a lens for the wake but only had one identical lens in stock, and the law required heat-treating all lenses. This could have been risky since lenses could be ruined in the treating process. There was a momentary debate, but ethics prevailed."
Made a difference
Muth feels proud that he has come a long way from Munich where he was born, and survived the experiments he underwent as a young soldier.
"Milford has been good to me and I hope that I have demonstrated enough reciprocity to have made at least a small difference," he said.
In terms of making a difference, Eric Muth has contributed a great deal, not only to his hometown but also to his profession.
Muth has been a youth advisor, scoutmaster, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Law and Safety Committee, a captain for the United Way, served the Red Cross, and was a member of the Lions and Rotary clubs.
He is a life member of the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division, American Legion Post 196 and Chapter 15 of the Disabled American Veterans. He was founder and chairman of the Korea-Vietnam Memorial Committee and an organizer of the World War II Monument Committee in Milford.
He finds time to volunteer at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven, where he works one-to-one with hospitalized veterans. He also keeps in contact with other former GIs who underwent the same secret experiments that he did 50 years ago in Maryland.
Eric Muth, immigrant stepson of an American GI, a high school drop-out who gained success through hard work and entrepreneurship, and a strong contributor to his adopted community, claims he has much for which he is thankful and proud.
He is quick to point out, however, that his crowning achievements share a home in Morningside with him. He refers to Rachel, his wife of 35 years, his son Karl, who is a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University and works part-time at Park Lane Opticians, and daughter Ellen, a professional actress who has appeared in several TV series and in films.
"Milford has been good to all of us, and I am grateful for the opportunity to call myself an American and a Milford resident," he said.
©Milford Mirror 2006
Published by Hometown Publications
1000 Bridgeport Avenue
Shelton, Connecticut 06484
(203) 926-2080 FAX: (203) 926-2091