Led by the tenacious Orange County widow of a World War II veteran, ex-soldiers and families of veterans exposed to nuclear radiation Wednesday filed a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation from the federal government for the contamination they say gave them deadly diseases.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays benefits to those exposed to radiation during nuclear testing or in connection with the U.S. occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan after those cities were hit by atomic bombs. But veterans or survivors of those exposed to radiation from additional incidents claim onerous VA regulations nonetheless prevent them from receiving benefits.
A Veterans Affairs spokesman said he could not comment on the lawsuit because officials had not received it.
However, spokesman Ken McKinnon said the agency pays benefits "if you were there, and we have evidence you were there, and you have one of the  diseases" listed in VA regulations.
But an attorney for the veterans countered that "the reality is we would not be filing the lawsuit if that was the case."
Lawrence W. Leck, the Chicago attorney who filed the lawsuit at no cost to the plaintiffs, said the VA's list of eligible diseases does not cover all the illnesses suffered by those exposed to radiation.
Veterans with illnesses not on the list, such as diabetes and prostate cancer, must prove their exposure was the result of military duty and undergo "dose reconstruction" to determine the amount of radiation exposure, he said. Unlike veterans with other disabilities, Leck added, the burden of proof in these cases is often on the veterans or their survivors.
The lawsuit is the latest battle in an 18-year war waged by Monarch Bay resident Pat Broudy, widow of a Marine officer who eventually won federal benefits, but who has nonetheless doggedly pursued compensation for others contaminated by radiation.
Broudy's husband, Maj. Charles Broudy, was exposed to radiation three times, including in 1957 when he was present at a bomb blast in the Nevada desert. He died 20 years later of lymphatic cancer. Only after she lodged numerous appeals and offered proof that her husband had been among the men ordered to stand near the blast without protective clothing did Pat Broudy begin receiving federal benefits.
"This lawsuit might be just another step on the long road. . . . We might get dismissed out of hand," said Broudy, who helped Leck prepare the legal action.
"But if so, we will just try another tack," she added. "These men are all dying . . . and now [the government] will wait for the widows to die."
The class-action petition, filed in a federal appellate court in Washington on Wednesday, names 10 veterans or their widows who claim to have suffered serious illnesses or deadly diseases stemming from military duty. Another, virtually identical, lawsuit is scheduled to be filed today in a federal district court in Chicago.
The plaintiffs include:
* Gregory Maas, a 52-year-old former Air Force veteran residing in Park Forest, Ill., who was assigned to Thule, Greenland, in 1968 to pick up debris from the crash of a jet carrying four thermonuclear bombs. Maas said he has undergone numerous surgeries resulting from gastrointestinal cancer. He claims he was rejected for benefits because his exposure was not the result of "atmospheric testing," and it was not on American soil.
* Dianne M. Pitts, a 79-year-old Laguna Hills resident and widow of a Navy captain who helped clean up the nuclear debris from a 1966 plane crash near Palomares, Spain. Her husband, Capt. Ray Maurer Pitts, who served in the military for more than three decades, died in 1977 of brain cancer.
Pitts claimed that after numerous appeals, the VA conceded her husband's death was "service connected," but refused to pay benefits because that might open the floodgates for others similarly exposed. She said she is participating in the lawsuit to "help all the others who are in my plight and to have the government [publicly] acknowledge . . . what caused the death of my husband."
* William Z. Yurdyga, 70, of Sacramento, who flew in a decoy plane alongside the Enola Gay, the B-29 aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare, on Hiroshima. Yurdyga's plane then flew through the mushroom cloud created by the blast.
In the days following the explosion, Yurdyga was among those who retrieved body parts of the dead from the murky waters off the beaches of Guam. Yurdyga said he is sterile, has lost one kidney and has had 75% of his stomach removed, both because of cancer.
"We were doing our job for our country and we didn't know what was going to happen. We were following orders," Yurdyga said, choking back tears as he described his involvement in this fight against his own government. "I'm one of the few guys that's still alive and it really hurts."
In pursuing their claims against the government, the plaintiffs are following the legal trail already blazed by Vietnam veterans, who now receive compensation for their exposure to Agent Orange.
"It took 10 years for Agent Orange [exposure] to get recognized and get compensated. It took three years for the Gulf War veterans [to receive benefits]," Maas said. "But for 50 years, there have been atomic veterans."
Citing information previously released to Congress by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, the lawsuit alleges that 15,818 compensation claims were filed with the agency on behalf of veterans who were injured or died as the result of exposure to ionizing radiation. Only 1,486 claims were considered, and only 414 met the VA's criteria, according to the lawsuit.
McKinnon, the VA spokesman, said those figures do not include the 5,000 "atomic veterans" who received benefits, although the VA cannot determine if the benefits were the result of radiation exposure or some other disability.
Leck said federal regulations "also require the benefit of the doubt to veterans, but that's not happening."
"These are injuries to people who didn't serve in a spectacular way. They were not going up a hill or landing on a beach. Someone had to pick up the nuclear debris. It was a quiet but extremely important service to the country. Why not give them the access to the system?"