Conspiracy of silence: After atomic blasts, a dangerous cleanup scarred troops for life
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 18, 2019
This is the final part of a three-part series looking at the plight of veterans exposed to atomic radiation testing. The first part detailed the vast cover up around the testing and its continuing effect. The second part detailed the multiple types of exposure vets have had to endure - often without proper treatment.
WASHINGTON — Before he died, Army veteran Paul Laird had an urgent message for his wife, Vicki.
For nearly a decade, Laird battled to expose servicemember illnesses that followed a secret U.S. military cleanup operation of radioactive sites in the Pacific Ocean.
He didn’t want his mission to end with his life.
“Please don’t quit fighting; help these guys,” he told her.
At least 4,000 servicemembers were dispatched in the late 1970s to clean up the fallout from U.S. atomic bomb tests conducted in the Marshall Islands several decades earlier.
In a 10-year period that ended in 1958, 43 tests were conducted at Enewetak Atoll, the ring-shaped collection of 40 coral reef islands. For the next 20 years, the contamination sat atop the atoll, 850 miles west of Hawaii.
By the 1970s, under threat of legal action by island natives, the U.S. launched a haphazard and dangerous plan to clean it up. The military would execute it.
Wearing not much more than shorts, servicemembers used shovels, bulldozers and other heavy equipment to scrap radioactive materials from the islands, breathing in deadly powder along the way. The plutonium-infested debris was dumped inside a crater from a previous test at Enewetak’s Runit Island.
The Enewetak Atoll cleanup veterans, many of whom faced a long list of cancers and other deadly illnesses, are mostly gone today. Groups that track them estimate there are only about 400 left today.
“We are losing them at an average of one every month to every two months,” said Keith Kiefer, an Air Force veteran who participated in the cleanup operations and now runs the National Association of Atomic Veterans. “Many of them have passed away in their 50s and 60s.”
Paul Laird, 62, lost his battle against his sixth cancer in March. Two months later, his wife, Vicki, 60, is still fighting for his final $1,000 disability payment from the Department of Veterans Affairs and reimbursement to have his body cremated.
She’s also carrying on his fight to force the VA to recognize his radiation-related cancers and raise his service-connected disability rating. The Enewetak Atoll veterans, unlike the atomic veterans who participated in the tests, don’t get disability coverage for their toxic exposure.
“He didn’t want to just help us,” a tearful Vicki Laird said. “He wanted to help all his buddies.”
As a high schooler in Madison, Maine, Mark Sargent was struck by a brochure showing an Army soldier carrying a rifle on one shoulder and a chainsaw on the other.
Sargent and his best friend quickly signed up when they heard they could do basic training together. Sargent was only 17.
Following a brief stay at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Sargent was sent to Enewetak in July 1979 for a six-month tour. He arrived to triple-digit heat.
“I’m just thinking wow, I’m just a kid from Maine seeing the world,” he said. “It’s an incredible adventure.”
The atoll, formed by the rim of a submerged volcano, is 50 miles across and marked by brilliant green and blue water. Massive puck marks were imprinted on the islets and the lagoon.
Servicemembers were told they would aid a humanitarian mission. And they were going to be safe.
But this was no paradise, they said. For many, this place was the beginning of their living hells.
“Nothing was explained, other than we were just going to go work on the islands to return it to the natives,” Sargent, 59, said from his home in Athens, Maine. “It was a testing ground, and on a need to know basis. We would learn more when we got there.”
Many worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, painstakingly removing six inches of topsoil from the islands. The radioactive debris was dumped at Cactus Crater, the 300-foot-long divot named for its namesake test in 1958 at Runit Island.
Sargent’s job was to help police the island and pick up contaminated metals. He also worked with the crew sealing the new, radioactive dump with an 18-inch thick layer of cement.
At night, the servicemembers all bunked on Lojwa Island on the atoll’s northern end. It’s where an advance party set up the base camp with tents in 1977 followed by metal “hooches” labeled with names such as “Hotel California” or the “Hilton Inn.”
The hooches sat on concrete pads that servicemembers say was also mixed with toxins. Lojwa also housed a makeshift movie theater, a Post Exchange, a mess hall and chapel.
It was one of the most contaminated islands at Enewetak, Sargent said. The servicemembers drank and showered in desalinated water from the lagoon that some worried was also poisoned.
While days were filled with arduous work, nights could be marked by bouts of intense drinking.
“I think they gave us beer to flush out our systems,” he said. “We were called the Lojwa animals. We were wild.”
There was no traditional military uniform. Many servicemembers wore shorts, grew scrubby beards and longer hair. Some weren’t in the best physical shape.
“We put on little beer bellies,” he said. “It’s like when you go out in the field in the Army, you are not shining your boots. We were men full of testosterone.”
Lojwa was also overrun by rats, and stomping them became a hobby.
Some, inspired by the fictional “M*A*S*H” character Cpl. Maxwell Klinger, tried to get kicked off the island. Sargent knew of one servicemember who collected dead rats in a bag, but that didn’t work.
“Everyone knew we were in harm’s way, but these were invisible bullets,” he said. “It was always in the back of your mind.”
The servicemembers left urine samples at the end of their tours to be tested, but they were told many of those were lost. Regardless, there was no baseline comparisons to make since tests weren’t taken before their arrivals, Sargent said.
They also wore dosimeters, or radiation badges, to track contamination. But those were lost or damaged as well.
Sargent says he is one of the luckier ones.
“I always thought I was going to get cancer, I just didn’t know when,” said Sargent, who lost Laird and at least six Enewetak Atoll vets in the last three years. “But actually, I am one of the healthier ones.”
In September 1979, the Runit Dome, known locally among the natives as “The Tomb,” was capped. There was no rebar or other structural support to keep the concrete from cracking, Sargent said.
It’s a haunting fixture for the locals known as Marshallese and others. In May, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivered a harsh warning that the “coffin” of radioactive material could be leaking.
“It’s going to eventually breech and go into the ocean,” Sargent said. “There are big-time cracks. We never put any liners, stuff we were supposed to do.”
‘I was just falling apart’
Ron Madden didn’t think much of his first tooth falling out when he was 29.
But when most of his teeth fell out the next year, the former Army heavy equipment operator started to worry.
In the next three decades, Madden developed three forms of cancer, bone pain, severe joint weakness and trouble using his arms and legs.
He stopped working and his 23-year marriage failed. His memory was fading.
“I was just falling apart. I couldn’t do my job anymore,” the former construction worker, 62, said from his home in Westfield, Ill. “The doctors and I didn’t put two and two together until after the cancer. I got to thinking, something’s not right here.”
Madden and his doctors realized the rash of illnesses could be linked to the year he spent at Enewetak.
In 1978, the southern Illinois native was assigned to work on Japtan Island, pushing heavy, contaminated dirt into dump trucks bound for Cactus Crater. He took a long boat ride back and forth from Lojwa for his shifts.
There really wasn’t any protective gear, Madden said. Instead, the one respirator mask he wore had to stay with his equipment for the next user. So, it collected toxic dust as it sat.
“You just did what you were ordered to do,” Madden recalled. “There wasn’t enough masks for everyone.”
At the end of the shift, Madden would board the same boat and ride alongside the hazardous piles.
By 1990, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and lost his left lung. Although he had been a smoker until that year, his doctor said the extensive damage didn’t make sense.
“My doctor said I could have smoked three packs a day and still wouldn’t have that much damage,” Madden said.
That year, he began applying for VA disability benefits, and he continued to do so for five years, but was denied. Madden had a 30 percent VA service-connected disability rating, from a foot injury.
By 2013, he was diagnosed with throat and neck cancer, losing most of his muscle along the left side of his neck.
Today, he’s lost most control of his legs, and struggles to take the simplest step.
“It’s not matching up between what my brain says and what my legs do,” he said.
‘Within seconds of dying’
After Keith Kiefer, the Air Force veteran, came back from Enewetak, he started experiencing deep muscle and bone aches.
The symptoms seemed to come from a mysterious source. He didn’t have a fever or a viral illness.
Now he believes the pain was linked to his time installing and repairing cable and phone lines on the atoll’s islands.
“The doctor could never find any reason for it,” said the national commander for the National Association of Atomic Veterans. “At one point, a doctor even tried to suggest that it was all in my head. I became disgusted with the medical community. It was a waste of our time and limited resources.”
The defense contract worker and his wife, Mary Ann, struggled to conceive children for two years.
Kiefer did a sperm count test before he left for Enewetak that showed he was healthy. He was tested again after Enewetak and found out he was suffering from infertility that lasted for several years.
“We basically left it in God’s hands,” said Kiefer, who lives north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin Cities in Minnesota. “We were going to consider adopting.”
His sperm count finally normalized, and the couple was able to conceive four daughters. Kiefer avoided doctors for years.
That is, until one evening in his early 40s, when he woke up from a strange, localized fever in his back.
“I told my wife, ‘Is it my imagination or is my back on fire?’ It was like I had been lying on a heating pad,” he said. “She said it wasn’t my imagination.”
The discovery sent him back to medical care, this time navigating a maze of possible diagnoses. Weeks later, he learned he had an autoimmune thyroid disorder and lupus anticoagulant, a clotting disorder.
Even on blood thinners, Kiefer struggles with blockages, and he’s come close to death three times. The first close call came in 2010 and again in 2011 and 2012.
“I came within seconds of dying from a bilateral pulmonary embolism,” he said. “Both my arteries to my lung were blocked.”
He also found out he was suffering from degenerative bone disease and spinal stenosis, which causes pain in the spinal cord area. He’s had both his hips replaced in recent years.
In his 40s, “I was told I had the skeletal structure of a 90-year old,” he said.
Kiefer has also been diagnosed with a non-diabetic form of peripheral neuropathy, another radiation-connected illness.
Even though Kiefer receives VA medical care, he doesn’t have service-connected disability benefits for his radiation-related illnesses.
Last year, Kiefer was $10,000 in debt thanks to his VA medical bills.
In the final year of his Army tour, Paul Laird got on his sergeant’s wrong side.
During an inspection of the 84th Engineer Battalion in Hawaii, a marijuana joint was found in a pouch near him on the ground.
Laird said it wasn’t his, but his sergeant didn’t believe him. Laird, a newlywed, was headed to Enewetak.
“They promised him he wouldn’t go because he was a short-timer,” Vicki Laird, his wife of 42 years, said. “Then they put him on the advance party to go.”
It was May 1977. By day, he breathed in the toxic powdery substance during 12-hour work days. By the end of his shifts, only the white of his eyes and teeth would break up the powder coating his body.
“After I made such an issue about having a dust mask, my lieutenant at the time told me, ‘Well if you’re that concerned about it, just take your T-shirt off and wrap it around your head,’” Laird told Los Angeles filmmaker Brian Cowden in the 2017 documentary short “Lojwa Animals: Do Not Forget The Forgotten.”
The servicemembers were told they would wear yellow suits, but Laird said he never saw one.
As the weeks wore on, he began to suffer a mental breakdown, his wife said. He was one of the lucky ones able to cut his visit short, she said.
“He had to go get counselors and everything,” she said. “When he got back, he was so distraught that he was out there and left me. Once he realized after being there and what was going on . . . that got him even more upset.”
The couple began their lives anew in Maine. They had two sons. In 1996, with $200 and a loan using their home as collateral, they opened Laird’s Family & Tire Service auto shop in Bridgton, Maine.
But the couple weren’t done with Enewetak.
Ten years ago, Laird was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
“We started realizing wow, it could be connected,” Vicki Laird said.
After he overcame the kidney illness, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer four times, including two different forms.
“I’ve been told by many doctors that’s like winning Megabucks,” Laird said in the “Lojwa Animals” film.
When he underwent chemotherapy treatment and recovered from the bladder cancers, the family became hopeful.
But last year, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He stopped working at the shop. By the time he died March 17, his body was ravaged by the disease.
In the weeks before Laird died, the couple welcomed their fifth grandson.
Cody Paul Laird carries his grandfather’s name, and a dying man soaked up his final moments.
“He would just hold him for hours and hours and hours, and he would talk to him, touch his little fingers and toes,” a tearful Vicki Laird said from her family’s auto shop. “He just wanted to live so he could watch his grandsons grow.”
Paul Laird stopped traveling to Washington to push for legislation or share his story.
He was able to get VA medical care and a 60 percent service-connected disability rating for hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. But he still wanted to reach 100 percent for his radiation illnesses.
“He was such an advocate, he was like a poster boy” for the Enewetak Atoll vets, his wife said. “He felt very strongly for the group, trying to get out there and get these guys recognized and seen. A lot of them don’t have good insurance and medical bills. They all deserve help, and the government is not helping them.”
The couple were actively lobbying Capitol Hill lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow them to seek related disability benefits.
This year, lawmakers have refiled legislation to extend VA benefits to this newer generation of atomic veterans. The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act of 2019, named for a late Hawaii lawmaker, would close the gap in benefits between the atomic vets who participated in the tests and those who cleaned up the fallout.
House bill 1377, sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and 119 other lawmakers, and its counterpart in the upper chamber, Senate bill 555, authored by Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and co-sponsored by 15 more senators, have stalled since the legislation was introduced in late February.
Vicki Laird said she struggles financially since her husband died. He received $2,800 monthly from Social Security and the VA disability benefits. That’s gone now.
She says she’ll continue his fight for a 100 percent disability rating, which would result in significant back payments for thousands of dollars. He filed the first claim to raise that rating with the VA about eight years ago.
“I don’t want his claim to just die,” she said. “He did what he was told, he was a very proud man, he loved his country. And he paid with his life.”
Video by Brian Cowden
"There are a significant number of atomic veterans even today who don't know their oath of secrecy has been lifted," said Keith Kiefer, who runs the National Association of Atomic Veterans and Air Force veteran who was involved in nuclear test cleanup operations in the late 1970s.
PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN COWDEN