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Atomic veteran continuing the fight for benefits after denial from VA

By JAMES NEAL | Enid News & Eagle | Published: May 6, 2019

ENID, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — An atomic veteran is continuing a fight for benefits — for himself and other veterans subjected to atomic testing — after his most recent claim was denied by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The News & Eagle first wrote of Richard Simpson, of Hillsdale, in a story last December about atomic veterans' efforts to gain disability benefits for conditions related to radiation exposure. The were ordered to participate in a series of tests between 1945 and 1962 in which the U.S. military subjected troops to atomic blasts to observe the effects of radiation.

The National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) estimates 195,000 to 300,000 U.S. troops were subjected to atomic testing during that timeframe.

Simpson, then a platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps, participated in Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953, in which he and his men were placed in trenches about 500 feet from a 350-foot tower, on which an atomic bomb was detonated.

After the test, growths grew on and were removed from Simpson's head, arms and hands, and a Navy corpsman had to scrape dying flesh away from a discolored area near his groin every several days for about three months.

It wasn't until October 2017, that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimated the radiological exposure to which Simpson and his men were subjected. It was estimated at 550 rem — a level the National Science Foundation estimates is likely to cause acute illness and/or early death.

Cancer later developed in the spot near Simpson's groin, and he has had more than 30 cancerous lesions removed on his arms, face, ears and back.

A couple of years after the test — during which Simpson had grown three-quarters of an inch — Simpson said a Navy corpsman noticed his gait was off balance. An exam revealed his left leg — the one that had the dead flesh removed repeatedly after the atomic testing — was three-quarters of an inch shorter than his right leg.

Simpson said the Navy doctor who examined him said his leg didn't grow with the rest of his body because of damage to the bone in the spot where the flesh had died.

"The Navy doctor said that must be what caused it, was that burn from the radiation," Simpson said.

In April 2017, Simpson was awarded a 40 percent disability rating by the VA, but that didn't include any rating for his leg.

He went to the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City last June to have his leg evaluated, along with lesions on his arms and back.

Simpson said the entire exam took seven minutes, and the doctor reviewing his claim declined to look at lesions on his back, or at the spot on his upper left leg that he claims caused that leg to be shorter.

Last October Simpson was sent to another VA review appointment with a contract provider in Enid. Simpson said that doctor also declined to examine the spot on his leg.

In January, Simpson went to a third appointment, this time back at the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City. Simpson said that doctor did examine the spot on his upper left leg and told him "there's no meat there, I can feel the bone."

A VA letter dated March 29, 2019, denying Simpson's claim for his leg, references VA medical treatment records from Oct. 31, 2018, through Dec. 26, 2018 — a date range which would not include that last visit, when his leg was examined.

And, Simpson said, none of the records used to deny his claim made any mention of him being exposed to radiation in the atomic bomb tests.

"They will never mention nuclear radiation in any of these reports," Simpson said.

The reason given in the letter for denying his claim was a leg break Simpson suffered when he was 15.

Simpson said he never had problems with the leg after that break, up to and including Marine Corps boot camp. His problems with the leg only started after the atomic testing, Simpson said.

"The main thing that bothers me is them telling me it was due to this fractured leg," Simpson said. "They know damn well the Marine Corps would have never taken me in the first place, if that leg was shorter, and the Navy doctor told me it must be due to the burn in my groin there."

Simpson said he doesn't need the additional disability benefits, but he wants the VA to be held accountable for other veterans who suffer ailments brought on by atomic testing.

"I'm not doing this for the damn money," Simpson said. "I want to push to get the help for everyone else ... but they do owe me.

"The main thing was for them to take a better look at the other people they treated this way," Simpson said. "I'm not the only atomic veteran that's been treated this way by the VA."

Jacob Nichols, a spokesman for the Muskogee Regional Benefits Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration, told the News & Eagle cases like Simpson's are determined "on an individual, case-by-case basis after a physical examination and a review of a veteran’s case," and are "adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence."

"The longstanding legal criteria for establishing service-connected compensation for a disability requires a confirmed diagnosis of the disability, evidence of an event or injury that occurred during military service, and evidence showing that the current disability is linked to the in-service event or injury," Nichols wrote.

Simpson said he can't provide documentation of the early Navy diagnosis that his leg was shorter due to damage from the radiation, because he was told by the VA the medical records from his time in the service were lost in a fire.

Asked if there was a record of such a fire, Nichols referred the News & Eagle to a July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, which destroyed records held for veterans who were discharged from the Army and Air Force.

Simpson has sought help in resolving his claim from the offices of Sen. James Lankford and Rep. Frank Lucas.

He said the Legislators' offices have been responsive, but haven't yielded any results with the VA.

"Lankford's Tulsa office called me and told me just what I could find for myself on the internet," Simpson said. "It was nothing but talk."

He said Lucas' Yukon office provided him with copies of a letter from the VA office in Muskogee. But, Simpson said, at a recent town hall in Enid, when he approached Lucas to discuss his claim with the VA he was "pushed off onto the Yukon office."

Based on his experience with the VA and the Legislators, Simpson provided a letter to the News & Eagle asserting Lucas and Lankford "don't give a damn about the disabled American veteran” and “maybe the disabled vets could get all the veterans to back us and send them home.”

In an email response to the News & Eagle, Lankford wrote: “My staff and I do our utmost to serve all constituents and especially to fully honor and serve our veterans."

"We are grateful to have resolved hundreds of cases for Oklahoma veterans," Lankford wrote. "It is our responsibility to thoroughly and completely exhaust our casework process for each constituent, connect directly with federal agency contacts to inquire about the options available to constituents who need help, and share those options back with the constituent.

"However," Lankford wrote, "we cannot interfere in pending Executive or Judicial Branch decisions on matters before them, nor can we advocate for a certain result."

Lucas likewise wrote that his office couldn't directly intervene in a VA benefit decision.

"While I cannot tell a federal employee to do something contrary to federal law, my staff and I ensure that every constituent is given the benefit of every possible opportunity — no matter the federal agency or claim — and that the agency responds as thoroughly and as quickly as possible," Lucas wrote.

Lucas said his staff "has worked tirelessly and dedicated countless hours to ensure (Simpson's) claim with the VA was heard."

"Throughout the process, my congressional staff has kept him aware of every step the VA has taken and they will continue to should he wish to continue to address his claim," Lucas wrote.

Simpson said he does intend to keep pressing his claim. And, he wants Legislators and the VA to fight as hard for veterans as he and his fellow service members have in the wake of atomic testing.

"I was burned. I was hurt. But I just kept going," Simpson said. "I'm not going to give up, because I don't want all the other atomic veterans to give up too. It's not for the damn money. I just don't like being treated like a dog."

©2019 the Enid News & Eagle (Enid, Okla.)
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