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    “We Had No Protective Gear”: Veterans and Nuclear Radiation Exposure

    Happy Veteran’s Day to the unsung heroes of Enewetak Atoll! These veterans worked in nuclear cleanup efforts in the Marshall Islands. The veterans and the people of Enewetak exposed to radioactivity after the United States’ nuclear tests now say it cost them their health.

    History of Nuclear Testing

    The Marshall Islands were used as a bombing range during World War II and afterwards. One of the chain of islands bombed during the United States’ nuclear tests was Enewetak Atoll. The government decided to return the island to the Pacific Trust in the 1980s. They began to clean it. However, they quickly ran into a major problem. The islands were radioactive. Could this have hurt veterans?

    The Department of Veterans Affairs vs. Veterans

    The Department of Defense denies this. Their official site says “The Veterans participating in cleanup wore protective clothing and radiation dose measuring devices when needed, and had regular radiation checks…” However, one veteran of the cleanup, Dr. Ernest T. Davis, says “WE HAD NO PROTECTIVE GEAR.” While urine was tested for radioactivity, “the urine was collected right before you left.  They would give you this huge jug almost like a water cooler bottle to fill with pee.  They would bring them to S-1 or S-3 [military personnel and operations].  Some of those bottles never made it out from what I remember.  And, to top it off, they said there were NO levels of radiation from our rad badges.  They were all broke!”

    The Science of Nuclear Testing

    The LA Times reports that radiation levels 1,000 – 3,000 times normal levels have been found in giant clams around the site of the Runit Dome, where nuclear waste was dumped. Some believe that ocean water is passing into the dome and carrying away radioactivity, putting the atoll and its residents in more danger if sea levels rise. A study presented to the National Academy of Sciences found that the radiation levels on Enewetak Atoll were higher than any other island in the area. The National Cancer Institute reports that “…the doses and the risk varied widely depending on location. People living in northern atoll locations received higher doses and were subject to greater cancer risks. For the 82 people who lived on Rongelap atoll, the authors projected 55% of all cancers might be attributed to fallout exposure.” 


    While there is no data available through the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans report developing cancer as well. They believe it’s from the cleanup. The Department of Veterans Affairs, on their Web site, say that the possibility of developing health problems from this tour of duty is ‘low’. That remains to be seen.


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