For many atomic veterans, the fight for benefits continues
By JAMES NEAL | Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle | Published: December 2, 2018
ENID, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — In the 65 years since Richard Simpson was used as a live subject in atomic bomb testing, he’s never shared his story publicly. He’s breaking his silence now to help other veterans who are fighting for benefits to fight cancer and other illnesses tied to radiation exposure.
“There’s one reason I’m doing this,” Simpson said. “There were a lot of veterans that were involved in these atomic tests that died early, and the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) hasn’t helped us.”
Simpson is one of between 195,000 and 300,000 U.S. troops who were subjected to atomic testing between 1945 and 1962, according to the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV).
Since participating in an atomic bomb test in 1953, Simpson has had more than 30 cancerous lesions removed from his body.
Simpson now has access to VA benefits and a small monthly pension. But it took more than six decades to get there, and he worries many other atomic veterans aren’t receiving the help they need.
When Simpson was discharged from the Marines in 1954, he said the Navy doctor who out-processed him “said the VA would take care of us.”
He went to the VA hospital in Oklahoma City after his discharge. “They said they would contact me,” Simpson said.
That contact never came, he said. Nor did any medical benefits.
Repeated calls yielded no further action. Finally, Simpson said he went as high as he could.
“I called the White House hotline for the VA,” he said, “and they just said to fill out more requests.”
In 1979, 25 years after Simpson was discharged, he said the VA called him to come in for an evaluation. But, that visit yielded only a familiar response: “They said they would call me.”
It was 2016 — another 37 years — before the VA followed up on his request for medical help.
“I called them back and asked them why it took them 63 years to follow up on my request,” Simpson said.
Simpson said his luck with the VA changed when he enlisted the help of Linda Turner, herself a veteran and veterans service representative with the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.
Turner helps local veterans navigate the paperwork of disability claims and appeals. With her help, Simpson was scheduled a new review with a VA-contracted doctor in Oklahoma City.
“He looked at my head, arms and face,” Simpson said. “He didn’t want to look at my groin or back, where cancers had been cut out.”
After waiting more than six decades, Simpson said the medical review process was brief.
“It took about seven minutes for that doctor to determine what to tell the VA,” Simpsons said, “who determined my disability of 40 percent.”
Simpson said he’s grateful for Turner’s help, the medical coverage and small pension that comes with it. But that doesn’t undo having to wait almost 65 years for answers, he said.
“If I’ve been that way for 65 years, why did it take them that long to figure it out,” he said, “and why should I not get back-paid until 1953 when it happened?”
Keith Kiefer, NAAV’s national commander, said Simpson’s experience with fighting and waiting for benefits is not unique.
There are two processes through which atomic veterans can apply for disability compensation related to illnesses caused by radiation exposure.
They can apply for a VA disability rating, like Simpson. Or, they can apply for a one-time, $75,000 payment through the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), managed by the Department of Justice.
Kiefer said regulations prevent veterans from “double-dipping,” meaning they typically only receive benefits from the VA or DOJ — not both.
But not all veterans who were exposed to radiation in the military, and who now suffer cancer, autoimmune diseases and other illnesses, are guaranteed to receive benefits.
Kiefer knows this from experience. In 1978, he was an airman in a group of about 4,000 men who, between 1977 and 1980, were sent to the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands to clean up radiological fallout from atomic testing.
The U.S. detonated 67 bombs in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. Kiefer’s unit was part of the effort to collect 110,000 cubic yards of radioactive material and to encase it under an 18-inch-thick concrete dome on Runit Island.
Kiefer said the men worked without protective equipment, and no tests were done before they deployed, or after, to determine any radiation exposure.
“It was one of the worst-planned operations,” Kiefer said, “or maybe the best-planned operation for plausible deniability.”
The government still does not recognize members of the Enewetak cleanup as atomic veterans, and they are not eligible for RECA or VA disability benefits.
But, for Kiefer, there’s no doubt he and his fellow troops at Enewetak were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
Even though he was “young and naive and trusted the government,” Kiefer said he had a doctor conduct a fertility test on him before he left for the Marshall Islands. It was normal. When he returned, he had the test redone, and he was infertile.
He suffered deep muscle and bone aches and unexplained, recurring fevers in the months after the cleanup operation, and he now suffers a thyroid condition, a blood clotting disorder and neuropathy — all known to be associated with radiation exposure.
But because the government doesn’t recognize their exposure at Enewetak, Kiefer said he’s still paying out-of-pocket for medical care at his local VA hospital.
Kiefer said he’s still glad he served, but he feels lied to and cheated.
“I’m very disappointed at the lack of integrity,” Kiefer said. “If it was safe, why did we spend three years scraping the soil off many of the islands? That just defies logic.”
To date, Runit Island remains uninhabitable, and the dome containing the radioactive waste is leaking, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We were working there 24/7 for three years to clean that up, yet the government claims we weren’t exposed to anything,” Kiefer said. “I have been very disappointed in the denial of the government of what happened there, what we were exposed to and not caring for the veterans.”
A bill to expand RECA coverage to Enewetak cleanup crews has been stuck in committee in Congress since last session. Kiefer remains hopeful Congress will act and expand RECA coverage, but he said it will be too late for many with whom he served.
“We’re losing them at a rate of two to three every two months,” Kiefer said, “and most of them are dying of cancers and other radiological-related diseases.”
While Kiefer still receives no disability benefits from his service, he works through NAAV to gain benefits for others, like Simpson, who are eligible.
Many of those veterans wait decades for final determinations, especially if they have to appeal initial decisions, Kiefer said.
“I know many veterans who have fought the VA for 10 to 14 years before they were successful at that,” Kiefer said. “That is why many men have come up with the statement that the VA motto is ‘Delay and deny until they die.’ ”
Bobbi Gruner, deputy director of public affairs for the VA Continental South region, said VA has been working to improve both claims and appeals times.
“VA’s claims backlog reached its peak of 611,000 in March 2013,” Gruner wrote in an email to the News & Eagle. “Since then, the department has made enormous improvements in claims processing speed and efficiency. VA now processes the average veteran’s claim in 100.5 days, and the current claims backlog is at a near-historic low of approximately 83,665.”
Gruner acknowledged the appeals process had, “for years … been complex, inefficient and difficult to navigate for veterans.”
She said the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, signed into law in August, “overhauls and modernizes our claims appeals process and thereby provides better and faster decisions for veterans.”
The effects of that bill have yet to be seen. And bills to expand RECA and to recognize atomic veterans with Atomic Veteran Service Medals remain stuck in committee in Congress.
Rep. Frank Lucas, the Republican representing Oklahoma’s 3rd Congressional District, does not sit on the committees for either of those bills, and his office declined to comment on them while they’re still in committee.
Meg Wagner, Lucas’ communications director, said handling veterans’ issues “is something our office takes very seriously.”
She encouraged any veteran who does not feel they are receiving adequate service from the VA to contact the congressman’s Yukon office at 405-373-1958 or to request constituent services at https://lucas.house.gov.
Linda Turner, the veterans service representative with Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, meets with veterans on a walk-in basis 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays at The Non Profit Center at 114 S. Independence Ave. in Enid.
©2018 the Enid News & Eagle (Enid, Okla.)
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