It was 1955 when 17-year-old Hank Bolden was given his orders to head out into Nevada desert.
“They don’t tell you what you’re gonna be facing,” he told NBC Connecticut. “No one there knew what they were gonna be facing.”
Top military brass called it Operation Teapot, intended to test the effects of nuclear bombs on structures and strategies, animals and people.
Bolden soon realized after arriving in Nevada, just what people the tests were concerned with. He was held in a bunker along with dozens of other black service members, while 14 atomic bombs were detonated miles away.
“They wanted to see how live soldiers would stand up to being exposed to radiation,” Bolden recalls. “Prior to using live soldiers they were using mannequins. But you don’t get real results from using mannequins as you would live bodies.”
“There was this myth about black people being able to withstand, tolerate certain things more than any other race,” he says. “So it was a test on that also.”
Wayne Brooks was a gunner’s mate aboard the USS De Haven when it sailed deep into the Pacific for Operation Hardtack I, a series of nuclear tests in 1958. Over three months, he witnessed 27 of them, Reveal News reports.
The flash was so bright that even 20 miles from the blast, Brooks, now 75, said, “When you put your hands over your eyes, you saw your bones in your hands and in your fingers.”
Like Brooks, the hundreds of thousands of service members now known as “Atomic Veterans” were never given a commendation or medal for cleaning up. Their jobs exposed them to dangerous atomic radiation. When many of these veterans, later became sick along with their families, they were given no federal compensation for treatment.
Soldiers, aviators and sailors who took part in U.S. nuclear tests between 1946 and 1962 or were exposed to radiation during the occupation of Japan after World War II now face a prolonged battle with “a system that is not working,” Melinda F. Podgor writes in the Elder Law Journal published by the U. of I. College of Law.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs’ disability compensation system prevents the vast majority of atomic veterans from obtaining benefits for their radiation-induced diseases. As a result, many atomic veterans are unable to receive necessary medical treatment or to provide for their basis needs,” Podgor wrote.
According to the Illinois News Bureau, It can be years before the cases of sick elderly veterans are decided. Meanwhile, a lack of understanding on the relationship between radiation exposure and various cancers can make it difficult for veterans to actually prove their illnesses were prompted by radiation exposure.
“As of October 2004, roughly 18,275 atomic veterans applied for disability compensation, but only 1,875 of these claims were granted,” Podgor wrote. “Thus, nearly 90 percent of atomic veterans have been denied disability compensation.”
After World War II, many service members experienced radiation exposure from the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because levels of radiation exposure were not closely monitored and records were not kept, these veterans were not able to receive their VA benefits.
As this battle for benefits continues. the number of veterans who still need help are dying off before their cases can be resolved.
Navy veteran Norm Duncan, assigned to Nagasaki, Japan, in WWII, spent three months cleaning debris and burying bodies after the atomic bombs were dropped. He later contracted stomach and lung cancer. Because Duncan’s official military personnel file was destroyed in a 1973 fire, it wasn’t until 1998 that he could present his restored discharge papers to the VA and make a claim for his benefits.
Three years later, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, finally found Duncan’s name on a list of people who had served in the 31st Naval Construction Battalion at Nagasaki. There was also evidence Duncan saw a doctor for fever, chest pains and coughing up blood.
A year later, while Duncan’s claim was still being processed, the WWII veteran died.
Veterans who served between 1945 and 1992 and were exposed to radiation became eligible to receive a service certificate under the fiscal 2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, Military.com reports.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minnesota, who have worked for five years to include the measure in the defense bill, say a piece of paper is not enough.
“It is vital to note the unique nature of this group of Atomic Veterans and the urgent need to recognize their service,” McGovern and Emmer wrote in a letter to other members of Congress, urging them to support the measure earlier this year. “Tragically, upwards of 80% of American atomic veterans have already passed away, never having received this recognition. Time is running out.”
This same situation will repeat itself time and time again if changes are not made. Our troops are risking their lives to serve people in need, and we need to honor their selfless commitment by caring for them when they return home. Click below and support the fight to maintain records of radiation exposure so the VA can effectively provide our veterans with the benefits and care they deserve.Whizzco