Forgotten Heroes: Service members left out after cleaning America’s atomic waste

Photo: Ken Kasik

It was known as the Pacific Proving Grounds, atolls bombed for nuclear testing starting in the 1940s. Decades later, soldiers and civilians in support roles were sent to the Marshall Islands to clean up the nuclear waste.

They want to be recognized as “Atomic Veterans” for the health and other benefits the government has paid other service members exposed to nuclear testing years earlier. There are thousands of cleanup veterans, many already dead from radiation-related diseases.

After Bikini Atoll, many of the tests were carried out along the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

“These islands held 1.6 explosiveness — the same as Hiroshima — per day for 12 years,” said Ken Kasik, a civilian who ran the military exchange commissary in the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s.

American military servicemen observed those tests from offshore.

“They were all made to sit on the deck of the destroyer back-to-back, cross-legged,” one testing veteran who died of cancer had said in a story recounted by Oliver Morgan, a cleanup veteran who came to the islands later. “They could actually see through the guy in front of them because the light was so intense. You could see the X-ray bones of the guy in front of you.”

Military service members in the Pacific for the tests are, to the Department of Veterans Affairs, recognized as “Atomic Veterans.” So are other participants in above-ground nuclear tests elsewhere – such as in Nevada on the mainland — and those near Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Atomic Vets and their surviving families get radiation exposure compensation and health benefits.

But that’s not the case for thousands of American service members who, years later, cleaned up America’s nuclear waste in areas still hot with radiation.

“There was no fresh water,” Kasik said of the conditions service members endured in the Marshall Islands cleanup. “They had to make the water out of the contaminated ocean water.”

Kasik flipped through photos he took of soldiers working in the dirt. “This is radiation,” he said. “This is everybody working in 110-degree heat, no protection. It’s a minefield of radiation.”

“Every now and then, they would make us drive our dozers and trucks out into the surf to clean off the soil because the dozer was too contaminated,” said Morgan, who was assigned to the Marshall Islands when he was serving with the Army in the late 1970s.

They had no safety equipment.

“We were basically in boots, shorts, T-shirt and a hat. The T-shirt was optional,” Morgan said. Photos showed many shirtless soldiers shoveling the contaminated soil.

“The debris they collected that they put in the vehicles and put on the boats to send to the island to dump into the hole was the same vehicle that took the guys back to work or back to the islands,” Kasik said of the people-movers that doubled as dump trucks. “There was never any decontamination.”

The level of contamination was known. Kasik shows KHON2 two radiation-measurement gadgets he kept from his time in Marshall Islands.

“If your badge turns red, get the heck out of there immediately, but there’s nowhere to go,” he said.

After Kasik’s shifts at the exchange store, he would help some military personnel log nightly radiation gadget readings.

“At the end of the night, it would all be added up and averaged in,” Kasik said. “So if you have one personnel that had been in a real hot danger zone the whole day and his badge was glowing, but you had 10 personnel that didn’t even leave the island and their badges were red and they were all clean, you would average the 11 people together and then you would throw it away.”

Many of the cleanup veterans and civilians are dead due to a high rate of cancer. Many others are sick, as are many civilians who were there too.

“I had 37 cancer spots removed. I had 57 biopsies,” Kasik said. “The other guys that were actually out there and digging in the dirt and breathing all this continually are the ones that are really sick and have gotten internal cancers, brain cancers, tumors.”

Sick veterans like Morgan suspect their families are touched too, but they and their families have been denied care. He recounts name after name of soldiers from the cleanup who have already died of cancers of the lung, brain and other organs. Many were in their 30s to late 40s, some made it as long as their early 50s.

He calculates a 35-percent cancer rate just among the numbers he knows.

“Their common denominator is that they were all stationed at Lojwa at one time or another in their life, and they weren’t all there at the same time,” Morgan said. “They’ve all either died of cancer or are in remission at this moment. They basically have to fight tooth and nail to get treatment from VA because they were ‘never there’ or they weren’t ‘exposed to enough radiation’ to give them cancer.

“We as veterans and as civilians that worked there, we would like to be acknowledged as Atomic Veterans,” Morgan continued, “because if we do become sick, we want to be taken care of medically. Cancer is not a cheap way to go, and we don’t want our wives and children to be burdened with the cost of taking care of us. The Atomic Veterans, they get medical, they get their spouses and children get $75,000.”

The veterans from the cleanup phase are now as young as their mid-50s, but battling chronic ailments far too young compared to their counterparts who didn’t serve in a hot zone.

“I’ve got acute bronchitis,” Morgan said of his own ailments. “I went to the VA here at Tripler (Army Medical Center) and tried to put in a claim as a nuclear veteran. A month or two went by and I went back to check, and the guy basically told me we have no record of you ever being there… I was like, wow, do basically you’re making me feel like I’m trying to steal valor?”

Morgan was sent to the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s when stationed with the 84th Engineers B Company at Schofield Barracks, but his service record for the time, critical to getting VA-service-related health and disability, just refers to “Hawaii.”

That DD-214 service record says nothing of the jaunt to the South Pacific even though KHON2 reviewed photos showing Morgan on the scene, in the cleanup zone, in the late 1970s.

“We’re trying to get our government to basically acknowledge we were even there,” Morgan said.

“We have a problem. These were controlled islands. We are not allowed any information about who was there,” Kasik said. “Everybody that went there, the U.S. government knows who they were and when they were there. They were put on those boats, toured the islands, went up to Lojwa. They were taken off and were told ‘You’re gonna live here and you’re gonna work here.’ Our vets have to somehow prove they were on this island. The only proof they have some of them is pictures that we’ve taken. The U.S. government is saying they were never on that island.”

The U.S. Army Pacific told Always Investigating they “don’t retain and can’t research individual records,” and that each individual vet, or their surviving family, has to go through the National Archives.

“They put all of us on the Lojwa base camp. It’s in the danger field,” Kasik explained. “The northern islands, these are all the hot islands. This is Enewetak (Atoll) way down here. This is Runit where they dumped all the contamination. What they did was pick one island, Lojwa, which is still in the danger zone, and they said will be safe enough as a base camp, and every day we’ll boat our boys from Lojwa up to the cleanup.”

But even if they proved they were there, the veterans still aren’t being included in the Atomic Veterans category, something U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, says lawmakers could fight to fix.

“Clearly if they were like the VA treats everybody else, including the veterans of today,” Takai said, “they would be rated as service-connected disability and they would be provided with care.”

When Takai was in the state legislature in Hawaii, he led efforts to ask the federal government to count these cleanup personnel as Atomic Veterans (HCR 247).

Always Investigating followed up with Takai now that he’s in Congress, and Takai then sent the Department of Veterans Affairs a proposal in writing (read the letter in its entirety here).

“We’re asking them to expand the definition of a veteran in this particular class and we’re hoping for the best,” Takai said. “What would be easiest is for the VA to acknowledge it and to make a change.”

If the VA says “sorry can’t do,” Takai told KHON2 he’ll work on a law. He also said helping each veteran prove their presence at the cleanup should be something the military and VA can be more helpful with.

“There are records somewhere clearly, and we’ve just got to work toward making that information available,” Takai said. “There might not be one list, there might be some information on how they got there, there might be a manifest, but it’s always better to have it on the service member.”

Short of being recognized as Atomic Veterans for the other benefits, the U.S. Army does have one avenue for assessing at least the health impact for now. The U.S. Army’s Pentagon office in told KHON2, “If the U.S. Army were contacted by the veterans administration or a veteran looking for assistance, we would estimate their potential service exposures under our Veterans Radiation Exposure Investigation Program,” said Army spokesman Dave Foster.

As for broadening the definition of Atomic Veterans, Takai says what America is doing now, not only for other Atomic Veterans, but for the Marshallese, should set a precedent.

“The Compact of Free Association, COFA, allows for pretty much unfettered access of Marshallese to come to Hawaii or elsewhere,” Takai said. “The federal government is acknowledging that because of the fallout, the Marshallese have health conditions that they need addressing, and we’re also addressing educational and housing as well. That’s an obligation we made to those people decades ago. I think that obligation should extend to service members who went back to those islands and addressed the fallout, addressed the nuclear waste that was still there.”

“The federal government is basically paying for their housing, medical, public assistance, schools. It’s costing the federal government hundreds of millions a year to take care of these people,” Morgan said of the Marshallese. “But us? Basically nothing. We’re the forgotten few.”

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Photo: Ken Kasik
Photo: Ken Kasik

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