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Editorial: Nation’s ‘atomic veterans’ deserve recognition

  • Congressman James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, speaks during an interview at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in April. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Monday, July 17, 2017

Thousands of military veterans who were exposed to radiation — including many who developed debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases — as the result of nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1962 are closer to receiving the long-overdue recognition they deserve.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday unanimously approved a measure co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, that would create a service medal awarded to the so-called “atomic veterans” or their surviving relatives to recognize their sacrifice. The Atomic Veterans Service Medal Act, also co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

According to McGovern, the Pentagon previously has dissuaded members of the Senate Armed Committee from supporting a service medal for atomic veterans. “Regrettably, the Pentagon remains silent on honoring the service of our atomic veterans, arguing that to do so would diminish the service of other military personnel who are tasked with dangerous missions. This is a pitiful excuse,” McGovern said in remarks delivered Friday in the House.

Between 225,000 and 250,000 veterans are believed to have participated in some 235 nuclear weapons tests conducted in the southwestern United State and Pacific Ocean between 1945 and 1962, or served during the occupation of Japan near Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on those cities.

Then-President George H. W. Bush in 1990 signed a compensation act for atomic veterans. However, many were prevented by secrecy laws from seeking medical care or disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for conditions resulting from their exposure to radiation.

It wasn’t until Congress repealed the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreement Act in 1996 that atomic veterans were finally able to legally describe their military involvement in nuclear testing so they could file for VA benefits. Veterans exposed to radiation who developed any of 21 types of cancer are eligible for compensation.

McGovern believes that is critical now to formally recognize the service of these atomic veterans who were part of the military’s effort to test the impact of atomic blasts on humans.

“A few years ago, I met with a number of constituents who are atomic veterans,” McGovern told Gazette reporter Dusty Christensen. “These veterans have never been formally recognized for their service — there’s no ribbon, no medal, nothing from the Pentagon.”

On the House floor, McGovern said, “These GIs were placed in extremely dangerous areas and were constantly exposed to potentially dangerous levels of radiation in performance of their duties. They were sworn to secrecy, unable to even talk to their doctors about their past exposure to radiation.

“Tragically, more than 75 percent of atomic veterans have already passed away, never having received … recognition. They served honorably and kept a code of silence that most certainly led to many of these veterans passing away too soon.”

The nonprofit National Association of Atomic Veterans was established in 1979 to represent those who participated in the atmospheric and underwater nuclear weapons tests. According to the association, “They also included veterans who were assigned to post-test duties, such as ‘ground-zero’ nuclear warfare maneuvers and exercises, removing radiation cloud samples from aircraft wing pods, working on close proximity to radiated test animals, decontamination of aircraft and field test equipment, retrieval and transport of test instruments and devices, and a host of other duty assignments that provided an opportunity for a radiation exposure and contamination event.”

The association adds that “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. This was largely motivated partly by military secrecy, partly by a desire to allay public fears … and partly by a fear of possible legal actions by actual (or potential) radiation-exposed victims.”

The military’s use of human guinea pigs as part of nuclear weapons testing was shameful enough. The government’s failure to recognize their service and sacrifices is doubly shameful.

We applaud Congressman McGovern’s persistence in seeking that formal recognition, and urge the Senate to follow the lead of the House in quickly approving a service medal for the dwindling number of atomic veterans who remain alive.