A Turn for the Worse
In 1976 Paul Cooper, then a recent Army retiree with three combat tours between Korea and Vietnam, was diagnosed with leukemia. Cooper’s doctor suspected he had been exposed to radiation. Cooper confirmed he had been a part of Big Smokey in 1957 at the Nevada test site. After the Department of Veterans Affairs denied his disability claim, Cooper approached the Disabled American Veterans. The organization went to the media. Cooper’s story ran in a 1977 issue of People magazine. People quoted Cooper:
“Just before they detonated the bomb," he recalls, "they told us to turn around and put our hands over our eyes. When it went off we felt almost unbearable heat, like backing up to a fire with tight Levi's on. We could see the bones in our hands through our closed eyelids, as if we were taking a big X-ray. Then they told us to turn around and watch the bomb. We saw the fireball go off, and the shock waves knocked several of us off our feet. The others hung on to each other to stay up. It was like being in winds of 80 mph, and the ground was shaking like it was an earthquake."
The New York Times magazine ran a detailed feature about atomic veterans April 22, 1979. Congressional hearings followed. Radiation exposure was unacceptable.
The services acted quickly. Commands like Marine Corps Air Station Yuma sent out media releases to employ the press to find the thousands who might be sick like Paul Cooper.
Some veterans took action. Former Army sergeant Orville E. Kelly and his wife, Wanda, founded the National Association of Atomic Veterans in 1979 to help veterans “openly address their radiation-induced health issues.” Kelly spent a reported seven years proving his lymphoma was connected to his service at atomic test sites. He died several months after the VA approved his 100 percent disability.
“Even since nuclear testing began, it has been very difficult to get a useful accounting of the effects of human exposure to the radiation particle fallout from these tests. The N.A.A.V. helps atomic vets navigate what can be a complex process of compensation,” says Ritter, the current N.A.A.V. national commander.
The Science of Radiation Exposure
Blake, a forensic atomic dosage expert of sorts, performs the dosage reconstruction for the atomic veterans for compensation claims and has records citing radiation doses received at test sites for the above-ground 16-year period. He also verifies where the veterans served and where they were positioned during a detonation. From that reconstruction of decades-old events Blake determines how much radiation veterans likely received.
Despite the large dosages feared, veterans received an average of 0.6 rem, according to Blake. The average person today receives 0.62 rem through the course of a year. On average, the atomic veterans are believed to be well below any risk to their health.
Some have been zapped by deadly doses. The highest was 91 rem received in 1954 in the Pacific by an Air Force weather station during Castle (Shot Bravo). The station, manned by Army and Air Force personnel, was tasked to watch for changes in wind and weather, according to Blake. During this same test, a Japanese fishing boat was in the area. The U.S. paid several million dollars in compensation soon after the incident.
In another test, forward observers were hit with 70 rem. Military aircrews that flew through atomic clouds registered as high as 23 rem. In contrast, military ground exposure was low. “Bombs generally were detonated at a high altitude making fallout on the ground very small,” says Blake.
“All these numbers aside, clinical effects are seen at around 25 rem,” according to Blake. Though DoD estimates only 68 veterans fall into this range, it is possible atomic veterans developed health-related problems from their work at the atomic test sites.
The VA is the primary agency responsible for veterans’ health compensation claims, but other entities have stepped in to support atomic veterans. In 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, Under RECA, the Department of Justice can make a one-time payment to an atomic veteran of $75,000 for a nuclear testing-related illness. That sum is off-set by any VA compensation. A presumptive list of illnesses includes more than 20 cancers and also is used by the VA.
After Paul Cooper, other atomic veterans came forward, some sick with cancer. It took nearly four years to settle an atomic veteran claim at the VA, according to Ritter. In 2003, frustrated with a cumbersome compensation system, Congress established the Veterans Advisory Board on Dose Reconstruction. “We work closely with DTRA and the VA to ensure we are helping the veteran in the most effective and efficient manner possible, “ says retired Lt. Gen. Charles Roadman, a former surgeon general of the Air Force. “We concentrate on DoD dose reconstruction and VA claims adjudication.”
The 13-member board of DoD, Department of Public Health Service professionals and other scientists has made many recommendations over the years. According to Ritter, who is the atomic veteran representative on the VBDR, “Through a variety of suggestions we now see atomic veteran claims processed in 8 months, at their slowest.” In one crucial change, the VA moved all atomic veteran cases to its Jackson, Miss., office.
Despite these milestones to ease the process, “only 3-4 percent of atomic veterans have filed claims,” says Blake.
Roadman is concerned about the low application rate, believing more veterans have a legitimate claim. “We’ve streamlined the process. Now we must concentrate on reaching out to our atomic veterans,” he says.
The average age of the remaining 167,000 atomic veterans is 83. Their life expectancy is six years. Roadman is on a mission. “If we don’t reach them soon, it will be too late,” he says.
For atomic veterans that have passed away, Roadman wants widows to understand they may be eligible for benefits. “We want the widows of atomic vets to apply, too,” he says.
“We want to reach children, friends, anyone who knows these veterans and surviving spouses. We take care of our atomic veterans, and we encourage them to contact us,” states Roadman like a man who has found the lord or young physician advocating for his patient.
“They did a great service to this nation. What we do to care for them can never match their sacrifice,” he says.