‘Atomic Veterans’ Get More Attention, Help : Radiation: People who witnessed nuclear bomb tests while in the military could benefit from a bill expected to come to a Senate vote soon.
More than 30 years after Richard (Mike) Jenkins watched nuclear bombs explode at close range during military experiments, his long-shot efforts to help other veterans exposed to radiation have finally begun to pay off.
In May, The Times published the story of Jenkins’ quest to locate shipmates who served with him on a Navy destroyer during the detonations of 30 nuclear bombs in the western Pacific in 1958. Jenkins had battled a baffling series of illnesses himself, including leukemia, before realizing that his poor health might be connected to radiation exposure.
“I want to see my shipmates get the treatment they deserve,” Jenkins said.
Since then, Jenkins has reached about 150 other so-called “atomic veterans” and their families.
“I got calls from men, widows and families of guys who were at Bikini or Eniwetok--and even Nagasaki,” Jenkins said, referring to blasts at western Pacific atolls and Japan. “I’m finding there are a lot of things that are common, like cataracts and stomach problems.”
Jenkins and other atomic veterans also are seeing signs that the government is giving their complaints more attention.
A bill that slightly expands benefits for atomic veterans was recently signed into law. And a more significant bill to lengthen the list of cancers eligible for treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to come to a vote on the Senate floor this month.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has also opened a toll-free hot line to help atomic veterans such as Jenkins find information about exposure and benefits.
“There is a lot more positive attitude in the government,” said Jenkins, a custom boat builder in Ventura.
As an unexpected side benefit of his campaign to help other veterans, Jenkins’ own case has received extra attention from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At 52, Jenkins has already undergone cataract surgery and suffered from liver, kidney and digestive tract problems. His leukemia is now in remission.
But Jenkins’ disability claim was denied earlier this year because he did not become ill before he was discharged in 1959. Late last month, a Department of Veterans Affairs representative from Washington contacted Jenkins and asked him to reapply under the new law.
“It’s unheard of for the V.A. to actually call someone and ask them to apply,” Jenkins said. Jenkins has not yet heard whether he will receive any benefits from the claim.
He is one of 200,000 men and women who participated in 235 atomic blasts detonated after World War II in the western Pacific and Nevada.
Jenkins said sailors on his ship, the Mansfield, were given sunglasses to protect their eyes and badges to measure radiation exposure. Then they were lined up on the ship’s deck, sometimes facing the blast and sometimes with the ship’s superstructure between them and the bomb 15 to 30 miles away.
His story of exposure to the blasts, with little or no protection against the long-term hazards of radiation, was echoed in interviews with more than 15 other veterans and their families in Southern California, Washington state and Arizona.
“I remember the day when they dropped the first hydrogen bomb,” said Robert Rabago, a school bus driver in Santa Paula who was aboard the Estes in the late 1950s.
“We had to turn our faces away. When we turned around, there was a humongous mushroom that shot up into the air. Then we were hit by a tremendous hot wind.” Rabago said he had raised his forearm to shield his eyes, and for two seconds after the blast, could see the bones in his arm.
Rabago, 57, said he has arthritis in his back, but he is in otherwise good health so far.
“My kids are the ones who got the problems,” he said. Two of his six children were born with rare bone marrow disorders. His daughter had surgery for a deteriorating jawbone and a son had to have a bone marrow transplant from his hip to his forearm.
Bone marrow tumors are among the 13 types of cancer that are considered to be caused by or aggravated by radiation from the postwar tests, under a 1988 law sponsored by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). That law established benefits for the radiation-exposed veterans. Before then, atomic veterans were considered peacetime military men and women and were ineligible for medical or disability benefits.
New legislation sponsored by Rep. Doug Applegate (D-Ohio) and signed into law last month broadens the 1988 law. It extends the latency period for leukemia from 30 to 40 years and expands coverage to include members of the reserve and National Guard.
But it hardly goes far enough, said Oscar Rosen, commander of the National Assn. of Atomic Veterans, a 4,000-member organization based in Salem, Mass.
“This is just another little crumb they are throwing us,” he said. “The government refused to add colon, lung and skin cancer to the list, which are major causes of death for atomic veterans.”
Rosen said he believes that the law only passed because it will cost the government very little to implement. The new law is estimated to cost about $1 million a year, but pending legislation sponsored by Cranston would cost about $64 million in the first five years. It would add cancers of the urinary tract and salivary gland and abolish all time limits for claims.
Nevertheless, the new Cranston bill had a favorable report from a crucial Senate committee and has been attached to a cost-of-living adjustment package for veterans. “Everyone is in favor of cost-of-living adjustments,” noted a staff member for the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Beyond medical coverage and benefits, veterans say, they want public recognition of their problems and access to information on their potential health difficulties.
Richard Newell, a Los Angeles management consultant who was aboard the U.S. destroyer Harry E. Hubbard in the 1950s, said he was disappointed with the Defense Nuclear Agency, a Department of Defense branch set up exclusively to help atomic veterans learn about their military exposures.
The agency told Newell that there was no record of radiation exposure for him.
“When I looked at the printout it was as though I was never there at all,” he said. “But I know I was there and I know I had a radiation counter. Hell, they marched us out on the deck at parade rest and told us to stand there and watch the explosion.”
Newell, 54, who is fair-skinned and blue-eyed, had surgery for malignant skin cancer on his face five years ago. He said he wonders whether his melanoma is connected to his exposure to radiation.
“I think the information ought to be available to the people who were exposed,” he said.
Alfred Ace Noffsinger, an inventor and entrepreneur in Palm Desert, was aboard the Boxer when the ship participated in a blast at Johnston Island. At 51, he suffers from asthma so extreme that he takes three medications each day to breathe.
“The only thing we can do now is make sure that it never happens to anybody again by making sure people are aware of what happened,” Noffsinger said.
Robert Stapleton, a Ventura man who flew helicopters over bomb sites immediately after detonations in the western Pacific and Nevada, heads an effort to see a law enacted that would forbid government lying about nuclear matters--whether they have to do with military test blasts or nuclear waste dumps in the desert.
“Our goal is to get Congress to pass a nuclear ethics act,” said Stapleton, 68.
Stapleton, Noffsinger, Newell and others have offered their help to Jenkins to ensure that the United States’ history of exposing people to radiation without their informed consent is never repeated. Jenkins’ recent successes make him optimistic.
“I think the ‘90s will be the decade of cleansing,” he said.
Sources of Information
Benefits and Claims Department of Veterans Affairs P.O. Box 13399 Philadelphia, Pa. 19101 Attention: Carl Adamczyk, No. 271 1-800-827-0365
Individual Radiation Exposure Defense Nuclear Agency 6801 Telegraph Road Alexandria, Va. 22310-3398 1-800-462-3683
Nuclear Operations and Library Department of Energy Nevada Operations Office P.O. 98518 Las Vegas, Nev. 89193 702-295-1000 For a list of all atomic blasts, ask for Document No. UC700, Announced United States Nuclear Tests.
Radiation-Exposed Veterans National Assn. of Atomic Veterans Commander Oscar Rosen P.O. Box 4424 Salem, Mass. 01970-9998 1-800-955-1186
Radiation-Exposed Veterans and Civilians National Assn. of Radiation Survivors P.O. Box 20749 Oakland, Calif. 94620 1-800-798-5102