I am an “Atomic Veteran.”
This is now an official veteran status conveyed both by Congress and the Department of Defense.
Impressed? Well, don’t be envious, because it is definitely not something I would wish upon my worst enemy.
Our military branches have been extremely careless over the years and have exposed many servicemen and -women to unnecessary and undisclosed hazards, in many cases related to radiation and nuclear fallout.
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My ship, the USS Boxer CVS-21, was the flagship for Operation Hardtack conducted during the first half of 1958. During this operation, the government conducted more than 20 atomic blasts over the tiny South Sea islands of Bikini and Enewetok.
The ship ended its eight-month stay at the site in August and returned to San Diego, where I went aboard as a very young seaman apprentice. My new shipmates were full of stories of sitting on the flight deck during explosions, watching mushroom clouds envelop the sky and, incredible as it seems now, having wind shifts that sent clouds of smoke, dust, grit and metallic odors washing over the ship.
Six weeks after the final blast, I was living on that ship. Never in my two years aboard did I see or hear about any form of radiation detection, dosimeter or any other urgency relative to potential radiation. The ship was never decontaminated, scrubbed down or sanitized.
Science says that many forms of this radiation fallout have half-life durations of thousands of years.
Sure enough, some years later I contracted colon cancer, one of the principal means of qualifying for the list as an Atomic Veteran.
Congress has subsequently set up a program where those who were officially there, and contracted one of a lengthy list of cancers, qualify automatically for recognition and a $75,000 tax-free compensation stipend.
And therein lies the problem with my case. Because I was not physically there during Operation Hardtack, but subsequently lived for two years on a contaminated ship, I have no claim. I have tried in vain to overcome this, but the response is always the same: “Sorry, sir, but you had to physically be there. And by the way, sorry about your cancer.”
On a lesser, but very frustrating, note, I am nearly deaf today. I was assigned to gunnery, and we are talking really big guns. Through two years and nine cruises, plus a week at gunnery school, we fired the big guns regularly, with no hint that ear protection might be in order. Again, our military let us down. (I read recently the VA spends over $1 billion annually for treatment of hearing loss in veterans. We all are paying the price for their negligence in providing proper hearing protection.)
My mother sent both her sons off to sea, believing the military would take good care of us. In later years she often said, “I trusted the Navy to take care of my boy, but they let me down and I wish I had known the lack of care before I signed to let them go.”
Am I bitter? No, not bitter, just frustrated.
We celebrated our nation’s independence last week. I know that many veterans have given their lives to defend our country. Some of us gave our health and well-being for the same reason. You can be certain we didn’t do it for the magnificent salary of $124 per month plus room and board, I might add.
I just wish that, as Mom used to say, they had taken better care of those of us who offered up years of our youth in defense of our nation and our ideals.
Dick Hagerty is an Oakdale real estate developer active in nonprofits. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.