Crystal white sand, clear blue water and coconut palm trees. Add tropical weather, and you have an atmosphere more suited for a cruise-liner destination than a carcinogen. Yet for thousands of veterans who participated in atomic cleanup operations in the late 1970s, Enewetak Atoll was no Fantasy Island.
“Invisible bullets entered our bodies, and we carry them with us daily,” says Paul Laird, a three-time cancer survivor from Otisfield, Maine. The 58-year-old Army veteran operated a bulldozer on Enewetak for the 84th Engineer Battalion in 1977. “We were told to do a job. You either did the job or you faced Leavenworth (federal prison).”
Enewetak was the site of 43 U.S. nuclear tests from 1948 to 1958. Nearly 20 years after the last test, soldiers like Laird returned to the chain of islands with a different mission: to clean up and contain the debris.
“We didn’t worry much about it,” says Gary Pulis, a cleanup veteran who lives in Auburn, Ind. “Nothing was ever going to harm us. We were young. We were invincible.”
Time has shown that to be untrue. Even for men in their late 50s and 60s, veterans of the Enewetak cleanup suffer from an alarmingly high rate of cancer and face other serious health issues. Laird estimates that two-thirds of the members of the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project Facebook group have had sicknesses that could be related to radiation exposure. One of the group’s founders, Richard Masculine, died of cancer in 2013.
U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, estimates that the cancer rate among the cleanup workers is about 35 percent. In November, he introduced the Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, H.R. 3870, which would provide for the treatment and service-connection presumption of certain disabilities for Enewetak cleanup veterans.
Though Griego lived on the main Enewetak island – often called the “clean island” – he worked on others in the atoll that were considered more risky. “I worked on 15 to 20 contaminated islands and never saw a scientist or health physicist on any one of them,” he says.
When most of the task force members asked for their dosimetry readings, the news was almost too good to be true, he adds. “We would get reports back that the reading were 0.00, which is about as likely as getting 777 on a slot machine.”
Dean says it’s impossible to believe they weren’t exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. “How could we not have been?” he asks. “Our pores were open because of the heat. We kicked up dust, and we were breathing it in.”
Kenneth Brownell, a cancer survivor and cleanup veteran living in Albany, N.Y., says he worries about the negative health effects he may have passed on to his children.
“We have insurance through my job, but what if his cancer comes back?” wonders Brownell’s wife, Kathi. “Even if I knew he’d be covered by VA, it would be a relief. The medical bills alone can be catastrophic. I’m blessed to have insurance, but if, God forbid, something happens to me, what does he do? It’s not easy.”
Laird has questions, too. “I love my country, and I’d fight for it,” he says. “But why do they just use us and forget about us?”
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