BELFAST, Maine — One of Jeffery Dean’s close Army buddies died two days ago of a cancer that the Belfast man has no problem connecting to their stint cleaning up nuclear waste together on a tiny South Pacific atoll.
The problem is, that’s not how they see it over at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — and that makes Dean see red. The VA recently responded to a Bangor Daily News query asking why the men stationed on hot, dusty Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s are not designated as “Atomic Veterans.” Dean and his buddy Tod Lentini were among a few thousand American troops tasked with rehabilitating the atoll before it was returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. It was the scene of more than 40 nuclear tests.
“The data accumulated over the three years of the project do not indicate any area or instance of concern over radiological safety. All doses, internal and external were minimal,” VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said in an email.
She said that according to a 1981 report about the Enewetak Atoll cleanup, if a veteran had entered a radiological area during his time on the Marshall Islands, he would have worn a dosimeter — a gadget that measures radiation. Of 12,000 individual records, none showed exposures that exceeded occupational radiation exposure dose limits.
He said that veterans he knows have written to ask for their dosimeter records from the VA, and when they receive them, all the readings have been blacked out.
He also does not believe the dosimeters they were given back then worked properly.
It’s just common sense, Dean said, that bulldozing radioactive surface soil and moving it to a giant crater with little protective gear would end up causing problems for the men who did the work.
“It’s pure, 100 percent cover-up,” Dean said. “It was the airborne dust that contaminated us. It just absolutely boggles my mind that they can say that.”
Paul Laird, a 58-year-old veteran from Otisfield who has had many health problems, including cancers, landed on the atoll in May 1977. He was tasked with bulldozing vegetation and topsoil in temperatures that rose to 125 degrees.
“I had no protective gear whatsoever. Nothing. Not even a dust mask,” he said. “That stuff would just poof and cover me. I would wrap my T-shirt around my face. I did not feel right from the start. When I’m sitting there on the dozer with no protection and I see a dignitary at the site to check out the project with a full hazmat suit and respirator, that sets up a red flag for me.”
For Laird, getting the Atomic Veterans designation likely would make it easier to get a disability rating from the VA because of his cancers.
“They flat turned me down,” he said. “No proof of radiation exposure.”