Milford’s newest Living Treasure is a military hero and a knight
He’s a knight.
He’s a military legend.
And he’s Milford’s latest recipient of the Living Treasure Award.
A French TV Crew was scheduled to interview Milford’s Eric Muth this week for an in-depth piece on how the military tried to build the perfect soldier. The shoot was postponed, but still, it’s an indication that Muth, once downtown Milford’s quiet optician, is much more than meets the eye.
To those who know Muth and frequented his business, Park Lane Opticians in downtown Milford, which he sold when he retired in 2002, he is a hard-working entrepreneur whose reputation extended from Broad Street throughout New Haven and Fairfield counties and beyond.
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.
Some of the story came out when Muth, past commander of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 15, received the Milford Living Treasure Award at City Hall in June. In part, a proclamation signed by Mayor Ben Blake saluted Muth “for his wisdom, compassion, community spirit, tireless volunteerism and a lifetime of selfless giving to his community.”
The Milford Junior Women’s Club, which selected him for the award, touched on his many accomplishments.
“He served on the police and fire departments from 1967-1968, graduated from Connecticut Fire College, New Haven 1962 and gave classes on the Milford Nike Site in Safety & Fire Prevention,” the club noted when bestowing the award. “He served on the Firefighters Local 944 canister collections committee for Muscular Dystrophy 1968. Served Milford as justice of the peace from 1995-1996.”
The list of community service goes on and on.
Milford Rotary International honored him with its “Service Above Self” award in 1986, and the Chamber of Commerce bestowed its “Community Service” Award in 1986.
He was founder and chairman of the Korea-Vietnam Memorial Committee. In just nine months the committee collected the funds and had the monument installed on the Milford Green.
He’s made many contributions to many organizations, including a 1982 gift of a $120,000 collection of vision aids to the Medical Sciences Division of the Smithsonian Institution.
Again, the list of services and contributions goes on and on.
Before all this, military life absorbed Muth. He volunteered 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 documents. The programs and experiments were so risky that several of the 7,800 men who were test subjects died.
According to online documentation, the research programs at issue concentrated at the Army’s facilities at the Edgewood Arsenal and Fort Detrick, Md., allegedly tested more than 400 different chemical and biological substances during five decades in locations throughout the U.S. and abroad, and involved an estimated 100,000 active duty military personnel.
“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.
Col. 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.”
Further evidence of the treatment Muth and others were subjected to came in the form of a letter dated 1998.
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.
“It is my belief that Mr. Eric Muth as a volunteer put his life at risk above and beyond the call of duty...” he continued.
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.
A Government Accounting Office report in 1994, which the Mirror obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, acknowledged 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:
“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.”
The Edgewood vets have in recent years sued the government and expect to go to trial in October.
According to Edgewoodtestvets.org, the plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief only – no monetary damages – and redress for several decades of the U.S. government’s use of them as human guinea pigs in chemical and biological agent testing experiments, followed by over 30 years of neglect.
In the beginning
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 seven years old and settled in Bridgeport, where his stepfather owned a business.
Muth attended local schools but dropped out of high school when he was 15, and obtained a special work permit. He joined the Army at 17. 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.”
Muth was at the Milford Nike Ajax Site during the entire Cuban Missile Crisis.
“The Milford Nike Site opened in the 1950s and closed in 1963,” Muth said. “I arrived in 1960 as a senior radar operator.”
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.
“I met my wife, Rachel Hubbard, when she was working at Courtesy Cosmetics downtown where I bought my cigarettes,” Muth said.
He received his high school equivalency certificate while in the Army and eventually earned bachelor’s and graduate degrees while working at Park Lane.
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.
Sometime after, he was invited to Philadelphia to receive the Opticians Association of America Distinguished Member Award. 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.
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.
He is quick to point out, however, that his crowning achievements are his family. He refers to Rachel, his wife; his son Karl, who has a master’s degrees from Southern Connecticut State University and Fairfield University and is employed by Bloomberg in New Jersey, and daughter Ellen, an actress of movie and television fame who recently appeared in two television episodes of Hannibal.
He casually mentions some of his other achievements and interests:
He was twice knighted at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City: Knights of Malta and as a Knight Commander, Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
His hobbies included skydiving, parasailing, ballooning and motorcycling.
But he said he’s 73 now, and doesn’t do all those things anymore.
Thinking back this week, he talked a bit about the Nike site in Milford where he was stationed as a young man.
“I drive up Eel’s Hill now and then,” he said. “All the buildings are there. I stand in front of my old room and mentally visit myself when I was in my 20s. So, you can go back, but you can’t go back.”
This article was compiled from a number of sources, including a lengthy article written by local author Manny Strumpf in the 1990s.