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A long way to go to be ignored: The last atomic veterans

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(March 15, 1996) In the United States, from 1945 to 1963, over a quarter of a million military personnel were exposed to ionizing radiation in over 100 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. Most of them are now dead, many of cancer and other diseases. In addition, thousands of civilians were used as guinea pigs in double-blindfold tests involving exposure to radioactive substances by injection, ingestion and inhalation through intentional releases.

(448.4444) WISE Amsterdam - Last autumn, for the first time in fifty years, a president apologized officially. Yet the day President Bill Clinton made his remarks was the day the O.J. Simpson verdict came down. Forgotten in the vicissitudes of age, death and the conspicuous lack of media attention, the surviving victims of radiation experiments are about to make one more attempt - perhaps the final one - to reach the public, their elected officials and the military establishment which used them.

Nuclear test survivors were scheduled to be pulled together in Washington, D.C., on February 26, for a face-to-face meeting with members of the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. ACHRE had recently been disbanded, with the release of its final report. The meeting and ACHRE's 900-page report had been canceled three times - with each government shutdown. Finally, after five decades of silence, members of the president's cabinet, and/or assistants in the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, Justice Department, Health & Human Services, Veterans Affairs, CIA, NASA and Management & Budget, would go toe-to-toe with the people the Nuclear Age forgot.

Historically, radiation test victims who raised hell over their conditions were treated like lepers by the news media, politicians, the Veteran Affairs (VA) and other agencies - even by doctors and especially by scientists. With lack of effective coverage, even the peace and anti-nuclear movements had a hard time keeping up with the issue of radiation test victims. The atomic veterans' best allies were Vietnam era veterans who had known about Agent Orange and had experienced government silence. Various veterans' organizations rose to the occasion, yet major ones shrunk from battle.

The issues are as emotional as they are complicated. The pay-off for such perseverance seems marginal. Yet if scientific ethics is to run apace with technological development, an educated and sensitive media is essential. Bio-ethics, such as in genetic engineering and AIDS research, has its moral precedence in nuclear experiments conducted in Cold War secrecy. It has been many years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Will the walls within the nuclear weapons industry and government bureaucracy finally crumble, and the facts be brought to the light of day? Will there ever be justice for the victims of the age?

The voting public has never been more cynical. The youth have never been more apathetic. Phrase-mongering politicians have been so thick that businessmen have made runs for office as a matter of course. Of all the non-issues in election years, atomic veterans has been a favorite one to lose. Yet, in our nation's capital, representatives of unique organizations - such as the National Association of Radiation Survivors and the Downwinders - met, all under the wing of the Task Force on Radiation and Human Rights. Among the organizers is the skipper of John F. Kennedy's famed PT-109, Acie Byrd. This Navy lifer lost most light sensation, deep in his skull, from the radiation effects of a Hydrogen Bomb test in the Pacific. From within the system, Acie Byrd saw what the military did to people who fought for justice. As an activist in the Rainbow Coalition, he has had many causes to tend to, but none like this. Over the years, as in the AIDS struggle, people die. Very few organizations publish continuing obituaries as much as atomic veterans. Byrd has managed to keep track of hundreds of victims over the years, including Chicagoan James Gates, Jr., of South Shore Drive, who has been fighting since 1955. Gates was present at the Nevada Test Site for the 14 nuclear tests of Operation Teapot, a series ranging from 1 to 43 kilotons. Gates nearly died a year ago, when a suspicious appendix that had been slowly festering for forty years burst, and this was followed by a heart failure. Gates has been raising hell since his teeth started to fall out in his 40's, back in the 1970's. By law, only 17 fatal afflictions were covered by VA compensation, for which Gates did not qualify. Yet, 90% of the cases of atomic veterans who had the cancers supposedly covered were rejected.

Gates and Byrd saw through this charade. According to the report of the president's committee, so did the committee, which had taken note that the cost of hiring lawyers to prevent atomic veterans from getting their just compensation exceeded the cost of paying the veterans outright. When Gates and Byrd meet the president's representatives, the two atomic veterans will make sure that the latter make good on their word. Most atomic veterans alive are in their 60's and 70's. The list of obituaries will get longer. But before the last one is written, the survivors will continue fighting for what is right.

The Final Report of the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (900 pages) is available through DOE

Source: Bob Rudner, Researcher, Alliance of Atomic Veterans, Illinois Chapter.

Contact: Alliance of Atomic Veterans. P.O. Box 32 Topock, Arizona 86436, USA. Anthony Guarisco, National Director, Tel: +1-520-768 6623