Sunday, March 22, 2009

'Atomic veterans' slowly gain recognition

'Atomic veterans' slowly gain recognition


3/22/2009


'Atomic veterans' slowly gain recognition

By DAVID CLOUSTON

Salina Journal

The check stub and a notification letter rest in a file stuffed with Salinan James Trepoy's military paperwork.

The sum -- a whopping $75,000 -- initially made Trepoy afraid to cash the check. Then he kept all the money in the bank for a time, fearing someone had a mistake and he would get a call to send it back.

The letter accompanying the check looked official enough, bearing letterhead from the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division, in Washington, D.C.

"This is to inform you that your claim for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program has been approved," the letter read.

Trepoy, 88, is among an estimated group of more than 200,000 former soldiers who were witnesses to above-ground and undersea atomic tests conducted between 1945 and 1963.

Nicknamed "atomic veterans," the soldiers were part of the testing because various governments wanted to see if troops could operate on battlefields contaminated by radiation from nuclear bombs.

Retired veterans Larry Halloran, of Mulvane, and Gary Thornton, of Leon, have made it a mission to track down atomic veterans in Kansas, particularly older vets such as Trepoy, to make them aware of their eligibility for financial compensation from the government under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program Act.

"If it hadn't have been for him (Halloran), I'd have never known," Trepoy said.

Money for veterans

In 1990, Congress passed the act, offering veterans who took part in the tests a payment of $75,000 each. Payments of $100,000 were offered to miners employed in above-ground or underground uranium mines scattered across the western U.S. Those working downwind of the Nevada test site were offered payments of $50,000.

"They're called atomic veterans, but they should be called atomic guinea pigs," Canadian lawyer Tony Merchant said recently.

Merchant represents a group of Canadian veterans who filed a class-action lawsuit in February seeking compensation from Canada's government for their radiation exposure and resulting ailments.

An estimated 900 Canadian military personnel were subjected to atomic testing in the U.S. and other locations starting in the late 1950s.

The Canadians' lawsuit alleges the veterans weren't told about the dangers of radioactivity, and weren't provided protective equipment or fully decontaminated after the atomic blasts.

Like many of the U.S. atomic veterans, Trepoy today has a taxing list of infirmities ranging from degenerative arthritis to a coronary artery bypass, diabetes and lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes), which was diagnosed after physicians noticed a skin rash on his back.

Lymphoma is one of 16 cancers the government presumes to be military service-connected if a veteran participated in a radation-risk activity.

Volunteers for atomic duty

Trepoy relies on a power-chair for mobility. But more than 50 years ago, the then strapping young Army draftee was serving in the Philippines waiting to be sent with other allied forces to fight in Japan when the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing about the end of World War II.

Trepoy and his unit were sent to Fort Polk, La., but his fascination and curiosity about the atomic bomb never ceased. When the call came in 1953 for volunteers to participate in nuclear testing, he volunteered.

He was a member of two infantry battalions that were to participate in one of 11 blasts as a part of Operation Upshot-Knothole in Nevada.

Soldiers were required to have security clearances, and no cameras were allowed. Trepoy said the soldiers didn't think the military would put the troops in any danger.

For the test, troops were dressed in routine basic-issue uniforms and leather gloves, Trepoy said. They were positioned in trenches eight miles from "ground zero," the tower where the bomb was detonated.

The soldiers were told to stand with their shoulders against the trench wall, to cover their eyes with their arms and hands and not to look up.

They were told there would be two explosions for comparison, the first with 2,700 pounds of dynamite. The second would be the nuclear device.

He could see his bones

On the second blast, Trepoy heard the countdown, and then the bomb went off.

"To this day I never heard the noise (of the explosion)," he said. But he felt the heat of the blast, and looking down at his hands he could see his bones, Trepoy said.

The blast at 4:30 a.m. produced a bright light and the ground shook. Sand blasted over the troops' heads and the desert suddenly got hot, as if someone had opened an oven.

The bomb, equal to a 43-kiloton explosion, shattered windows of vehicles eight miles away and cracked windows in Las Vegas 60 miles away. Fifty kilotons is roughly equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT.

The soldiers were allowed to leave the trench after the detonation to watch the mushroom cloud forming. The cloud formed two separate caps, reaching as high as eight miles into the atmosphere, Trepoy said.

The soldiers were told to advance toward ground zero. Along the way they came across a pit where six live sheep had been positioned. The wool on the sides of the sheep facing the blast was charred.

"We were told the sheep would be all right, but I swear we had mutton about two days later," Trepoy said.

He said the troops were stopped about a half-mile from ground zero and told to turn back because the radiation was too high.

Begged for medical aid

Today, the largest group of atomic veteran survivors is the National Association of Atomic Veterans, and Gary Thornton is a member and former commander of the state chapter.

Thornton witnessed eight nuclear detonations in 1962 off of Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. Thornton says thousands of atomic veterans have died while they begged for medical help, as the government was reluctant to acknowledge the health problems created by atomic tests.

The 225,000 military personnel involved with testing between 1945 and 1963 weren't even authorized to speak about their experiences, as the information about their service remained classified until 1996, he said.

The National Association of Atomic Veterans Web site states there are now as many as 195,000 atomic veterans left across America who either don't know that their oath of secrecy about their service has been rescinded, or are not aware of the potential monetary benefits due them for their radiation induced illnesses.

Thornton said that in the early 1980s there were more than 800 atomic veterans estimated to be in Kansas.

"Now, the best we can tell, there are only 99 of us left," he said.

Trying for recognition

Most of the surviving atomic veterans have long ago given up on seeing any medical or financial compensation for their service-related injuries, Thornton said. He and Halloran are doing their best to help those they can find.

The pair have also worked to get recognition for the atomic soldiers. They enlisted former state representative Everett Johnson of Augusta, himself an atomic veteran, to get a resolution adopted in 2004 to recognize and honor Kansas Atomic Veterans.

That led Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to present a certificate of recognition to each known atomic veteran from Kansas.

Due to illness and age, more than half of the identified veterans could not attend the governor's presentation ceremony in Topeka. Those who didn't make it got their certificates in the mail.

Just another day's work

For his part, Trepoy plans to use his $75,000 to reward charities that help soldiers. He's also already given some money to his church and the American Cancer Society, he said. And he sent some money to Halloran, he said, "to thank him."

"I just feel sorry for the men who've died and the families who have broken up," Trepoy said.

In his memory, the sand that Trepoy saw coming out the trench after the atomic blast is still melted. The glass from the shattered vehicle windows still scrunches under his feet. The sheep with the charred wool bleat with fear.

His trust remains firm in his superior officers that the troops were in no harm as they watched the mushroom cloud rise.

"When we got back to the base camp, we all took showers and threw our clothes in the trash. Then we went back to town," Trepoy said.

"It seemed like just a day's work for us."


n Reporter David Clouston can be reached at 822-1403 or by e-mail at dclouston@salina.com.

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