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veterans, nuclear testing, marshall islands, atomic bomb, nuclear clean up

The Problem With Our New National Holiday

National Atomic Veterans Day honors the history of the veterans exposed to nuclear blasts, but what about the people who cleaned up?

Words: Kenneth Brownell, Chen-Yang Lin, and Ash Maria
Pictures: Àlex Folguera

On July 15th, one day ahead of the designated July 16th, President Biden delivered a presidential proclamation on National Atomic Veterans Day, attempting to provide much overdue recognition to the American military service members who participated in nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, served with US military forces in or around Hiroshima and Nagasaki through mid-1946, or were held as prisoners of war in or near both Japanese cities. These service members were exposed to the effect of ionizing radiation during the various instances of the detonation of thermal nuclear weapons conducted by the United States, and were designated as the “radiation-exposed veterans,” or unofficially, “Atomic Veterans.” The July 16th National Atomic Veterans Day was first determined through Presidential Proclamation 5072, issued by President Reagan on July 15th, 1983, exactly 38 years in precedence to President Biden’s proclamation. This time, President Biden included the renewal language in stating “and every year after” to ensure the annual remembrance of these veterans who sacrificed the health and well-being of themselves and their descendants.

An event was held on July 16th at the Virginia War Memorial to formally honor the Atomic Veterans for their service. In the proclamation, President Biden called “upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities that honor our Nation’s Atomic Veterans whose brave service and sacrifice played an important role in the defense of our Nation.” The last time a sitting US President formally acknowledged the services of the Atomic Veterans was in 1995 by President Clinton, who announced that Congress would repeal the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Act, which had barred thousands of  service members from telling their stories and obtaining VA benefits due to their oath of secrecy. Unfortunately, the announcement was aired at the same time as the OJ Simpson murder trial verdict, overtaking public attention from what should have made national headlines. As a result, some veterans and their families remain in the dark about the fact that their pact of secrecy has been lifted, even today.

Missing from that proclamation is a group who experienced the same conditions and hardships: Cleanup Veterans and civilians. Under President Carter’s administration, US military members and civilians employed through government contracts were deployed between 1977-1980 to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where 67 nuclear weapons tests took place. While cleaning up radioactive remnants of many nuclear bomb tests, the participants were exposed to constant ionizing radiation and slept on the island of Lojwa where biological and chemical experiments had taken place just 10 years prior during Project 112/Project SHAD. The Enewetak Atoll Humanitarian Cleanup Mission involved more than 6000 individuals. Only around 300 are alive today due to the serious health complications resulting from their exposure. The government of The Republic of the Marshall Islands recognized this incredible sacrifice on August 28th, 2020 through Republic of the Marshall Islands Resolution No. 15ND1 in solidarity with the Cleanup Veterans. Although the Cleanup Veterans were exposed to the radioactive environment during their service, the US Government’s current definition of Atomic Veterans excludes them because they were not exposed directly to a blast. This exclusion prevents these veterans and their families from accessing their deserved, VA-sponsored medical and financial compensation.

Although the Cleanup Veterans were exposed to the radioactive environment during their service, the US Government’s current definition of Atomic Veterans excludes them because they were not exposed directly to a blast.

The situation is even more dire for the handful of surviving Marshallese civilians employed in the cleanup mission, who have neither access to any domestic cancer treatment, nor financial compensation. Today, in 2021, there is no oncologist nor cancer treatment facility for workers or community members to access in the Marshall Islands. The American civilians contracted by the US Government are also not eligible for any health or financial support from the federal government.

One of the co-authors of this piece, Kenneth “Ken” Brownell, is a Cleanup Veteran who served in the second group of service members sent to Enewetak. Until 2005, Ken was unaware of the potential long-term health risks of his deployment there, but now sees it as the primary explanation for most of the anomalistic health conditions he has experienced, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001 and later a heart attack. Through connecting with other Cleanup Veterans, Ken and the community understood a larger pattern of rapidly deteriorating health repeatedly met with rejected VA claims. Regarding his close friend Paul Laird who unfortunately succumbed to cancer in 2019, Mr. Brownell shares the following:

“I sat with a very good friend of mine, Paul Laird, until he passed away. And his greatest concern was how his grandchildren were going to do without him, you know, he was worried about his wife. Who’s going to shovel the snow when I’m gone? Who’s going to take care of the house, who’s going to fill the wood stove? He wasn’t concerned about his own life at that point, it was everybody that surrounds him that he cared for. And I’ve seen that way too many times. And that’s the hardest part. And so that’s the reason why we laugh, and we smile, and we joke. Because we’ve seen the worst of the worst. We watched a healthy man go from 195 pounds down to 90 pounds.”

Due to not being considered Atomic Veterans, many Cleanup Veteran families like Paul’s have been left helpless when trying to find support from the VA, especially after the passing of their spouses. Widowed spouses like Vicki, Paul’s wife, have had to sell their houses, move into apartments, and completely give up their previous lives.

Ken traveled to DC in July to convince lawmakers to support including the Cleanup Veterans in several pieces of critical legislation currently proposed. The first is the ​​Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act (HR1585) (S565) which “[provides] for the treatment of veterans who participated in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll as radiation exposed veterans for purposes of the presumption of service-connection of certain disabilities by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.”

The second is the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) Amendments (soon to be reintroduced) which will make radiological cleanup veterans and their families eligible to receive financial compensation. The third is the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act of 2021 which includes within it the Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act. And finally, there is the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2021 (HR3967) which includes within it the Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act.

Due to the omission of this group from the definition of Atomic Veterans, President Biden’s proclamation only further excludes them from their deserved recognition. While July 16th was a day of celebration for many, Ken hopes that President Biden’s acknowledgement will open the door for future legislation, which recognizes the sacrifices of the Cleanup Veterans and even better, their fellow American and Marshallese civilians who supported the US Government’s radiological containment efforts. This will entitle those who served in the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Mission to their rightful access to healthcare and compensations.

We commend President Biden for taking this historic step forward and putting the Atomic Veterans at the front of our national consciousness. However, we also cannot let this moment of realization fly by. Ken and his fellow service members need your help along the way. Please let your elected officials know about the need to expand the definition of Atomic Veterans to include those who are assigned to radiological cleanup in service to the nation.

Cleanup Veteran Kenneth Brownell returned to Washington D.C. in July after having to take the year off due to the COVID-19 shutdown to support a Radiation Exposure Compensation Act renewal that financially compensates families of deceased cleanup veterans.

Chen-Yang Lin is a recent University of Washington graduate. He currently participates in ISC-67, a Japanese student conference where students from different countries discuss important world issues, including nuclear weapons.

Ash Maria, a student at Pomona College, began working in nuclear justice during a fellowship with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. He now interns for the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Veterans.

Kenneth Brownell, Chen-Yang Lin, and Ash Maria

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