McGovern secures honor for atomic veterans

  • U.S. Rep Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, speaking at the rededication ceremony of Whately's Veterans Memorial on Nov. 11, 2021. Staff Photo/CHRIS LARABEE

  • FILE - This July 16, 1945 photo, shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, N.M. Thursday, July 16, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the Trinity Test in southern New Mexico comes amid renewed interest in the Manhattan Project thanks to new books, online video testimonies and the WGN America drama series “Manhattan.(AP Photo, File)


Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2022 8:50:50 PM
Modified: 1/30/2022 8:49:21 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In a victory nearly a decade in the making, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said Sunday that his office has successfully secured the creation of a service medal honoring veterans who were exposed to radiation during nuclear weapons tests.

McGovern, D-Worcester, has for years been working to win recognition for the approximately 225,000 so-called “atomic veterans,” who were exposed to high levels of radiation during atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962 but were sworn to secrecy and unable to discuss their past exposure. Many of them died without receiving proper health care.

On Dec. 27, President Joe Biden signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which contained language to create the distinction for atomic veterans.

“I’m thrilled that we finally were able to get this over the finish line, and the Biden administration has agreed to work with us to issue a commemorative medal honoring atomic veterans,” McGovern said Sunday. “These are veterans who were told they couldn’t speak about their service, even to their doctors.”

The congressman’s office first filed the Atomic Veterans Service Medal Act in 2014. In the House of Representatives, he won the passage of amendments to the NDAA for years afterward that would have created the service medal, only to have the Department of Defense step in and “undercut the effort” in the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, McGovern said.

“It’s frustrating it took so long, and it’s frustrating that the Pentagon was resistant to doing anything to recognize these veterans,” McGovern said. At this point, he added, some 80% of the atomic veterans have already died.

The issue was first raised by one of McGovern’s constituents, Joe Mondello of Shrewsbury, who is himself an atomic veteran.

“We would not be having this conversation today if it weren’t for Joe Mondello,” McGovern said.

Efforts to reach Mondello were unsuccessful Sunday, but in a 2017 letter to McGovern’s office, he spoke about the necessity of honoring the contributions the atomic veterans made to the country and to the development of nuclear science.

“The atomic veterans are living and dying examples of humans who were treated with less precaution than the laboratory animals exposed to the same test conditions,” Mondello wrote.

Mondello went on to say that the U.S. government refused to allow the passage of a bill recognizing those it had poisoned with radiation, causing increased cancer and other diseases, as well as birth defects in their children.

“The bill has repeatedly been turned down by the Pentagon and other ruthless officials who continue to deny their moral responsibility,” Mondello said.

Both Mondello and McGovern have said that they oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

McGovern, a longtime peace advocate, has consistently voted against the same NDAA bills to which he attached his atomic veterans amendments. He called the ballooning military spending in those budgets “beyond the pale.”

“But I honor the service of these veterans because they were doing what our government was asking them to do,” he said. “And it was dangerous.”

After years of silence, President George H.W. Bush signed a compensation act for atomic veterans in 1990, and President Bill Clinton officially apologized for the treatment of atomic veterans in 1995. But it wasn’t until this year that the passage of a bill creating a medal for those veterans has succeeded.

“Wars leave scars on the battlefield soldiers, but as the years pass, the scars heal,” Mondello wrote in 2017. “However, today, many of the Cold War veterans who had been ordered to assist in the U. S. development of nuclear weapons understand that they were attacked by an insidious killer. Unwarned, they were unprepared to ward off this invisible assailant.”

The secretary of defense will now have until June to determine eligibility for the medal, and will then create an application for those veterans or their next of kin, who will be entitled to receive the medal on behalf of their loved ones.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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