Atomic 'Time Bombs'

By Turbak, Gary | VFW Magazine, April 1998 | Go to article overview
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Atomic 'Time Bombs'

Turbak, Gary, VFW Magazine

Last month, "Under the Mushroom Cloud" described the nuclear tests in Nevada and the Pacific that exposed thousands of veterans to ionizing radiation. Part II traces their quest for medical treatment and disability compensation from the government that placed them in danger.

In March 1977, retired Army Sgt. Paul Cooper filed a claim with the VA regional office in Boise, Idaho. A patient at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City, Cooper suffered from acute myelocytic leukemia and was seeking disability benefits on the grounds that his malady was service-related.

His claim-considered outlandish at the time-was that his leukemia had been caused by radiation received while participating in a nuclear detonation in the Nevada desert in 1957 (Shot Smoky of Operation Plumbbob). After an initial denial, VA approved Cooper's claim, but declined to comment on the connection between the bomb test and the disease.

Cooper's case-and that of atomic veteran Orville Kelly, a victim of lymphocytic lymphoma who in 1979 founded the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV)-received considerable publicity. The genie was out of the bottle.

By the thousands, veterans wrote to the VA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other agencies claiming their health problems also stemmed from radiation received at the nuclear tests-or at least asking whether it was possible.


Between 1946 and 1962, about 210,000 GIs participated in atmospheric nuclear weapons tests-in the Pacific and in Nevada-that might have exposed them to radiation. Another 195,000 had occupied Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where they could have contacted radioactive materials. Collectively, they have come to be called atomic veterans.

In the 1970s, many of them started getting sick, and they wanted to know if radiation was the cause. Today, after more than two decades of study, argument and accusation, that question still has not been answered conclusively.

To be sure, there is no scarcity of sick and deceased atomic veterans, no shortage of circumstantial evidence pointing a finger of blame at radiation. The NAAV says the GIs who served in irradiated Japan and at the test sites are dying at an average age of 56-up to three-fourths of them from cancer.

Afflictions reported by atomic veterans are almost endless: heart trouble, prostatitis, joint aches, gall bladder troubles, thyroid problems, high blood pressure, arthritis, headaches, internal bleeding, anemia, immune system problems, teeth falling out, sterility, blood blisters, failing vision and cancers of every kind.

The National Association of Radiation Survivors, an advocacy group for all types of radiation victims, lists more than 75 maladies suffered by its members.

For some, the long-ago tests are literally a bad dream. "I have nightmares of steel doors clanging shut, leaving me outside with the radiation coming down," says Ronald Benoit (Castle). He was forced to stand guard for 18 hours on his ship's deck during a fallout.

In addition, some atomic vets believe radiation's genetic effects have been visited on their children in the form of infertility, retardation and a host of other health problems. Paul Pepin (Upshot-Knothole) wonders about the radiation that may have remained in the boots he brought homeboots later worn by his son, who now has his own health problems as well as a retarded child.

"It [the detonation] changed my life and ruined my children's," he says. "I'm living in hell knowing I may have caused my grandchildren's problems by serving my country."


Many atomic veterans say the Pentagon deliberately or carelessly exposed them to radiation, then botched-or sabotagedthe recording and storage of information about the doses troops received. "I will always feel that the [government] will never tell the truth about the exposure during these tests," says Robert Ruhnau (Tumbler Snapper).

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