In 1973, Orville Kelly of Burlington, Iowa, was diagnosed as having a terminal form of lymphatic cancer. He was 42 years old. He told his wife, Wanda, that he believed the cancer was caused by excessive exposure to radiation. Kelly, who had been the Army commander of Japtan Island in the Pacific between 1957 and 1958, had witnessed 22 detonations of nuclear weapons.

"Orville used to tell me they'd swim in the lagoon where they blew up the bomb," says Wanda Kelly. "Testing took place all the time, before he got there. You know there was radiation all over the place."

Orville Kelly began filing claims with the Veterans Administration for medical treatment and disability compensation. His claims were denied because the illness had not shown up within a year of his discharge from the military, and later, because he had not been exposed to enough radiation. "He had to prove they'd only measured him for five months," says Wanda Kelly.

In 1979, the Kellys formed the National Association of Atomic Veterans, to lobby on behalf of an estimated 250,000 American servicemen who were exposed to radiation during the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and during the atmospheric tests in the Pacific and the American southwest between 1946 and 1962. They were exposed at a time when authorities knew little about the long-term dangers of radiation.

Dr. Edward A. Martell of the National Center for Atmospheric Research--a radiochemist who participated in four test series in the early 1950s--testified at a recent congressional hearing that film badges worn by servicemen near the testing sites often did not properly measure the radiation they were exposed to. He believes they may have inhaled fallout that is causing delayed health problems for them and their children.

According to the VA, 3,325 veterans have filed for compensation as a result of radiation exposure. Only 2,321 of them have shown medical conditions requiring treatment. So far, the VA has allowed 29 claims as a result of atomic testing and 55 claims as a result of radiation exposure from other sources. It has allowed none of some 388 radiation claims by military personnel in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It finally allowed Kelly's claim in November 1979. He died seven months later, but as a result of his tenacity, his widow is entitled to a pension, his four children are entitled to go to college on the GI bill, and the family to military health care.

Wanda Kelly says her organization has recently located 16 widows of veterans who died of leukemia, and 22 cases of multiple myeloma, a deadly form of bone cancer, among 500 veterans of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who have contacted NAAV. Joint and muscle problems are also being reported, as well as stillbirths, birth defects and miscarriages.

The only government study done produced less alarming findings. The Centers for Disease Control studied veterans exposed in August 1957 to a nuclear blast in Nevada. It found a statistically significant increase in the incidence of leukemia, but no increase in other cancers and a lower overall death rate than could be expected.

Until recently, the VA treated only cancers or thyroid nodules, which are known effects of radiation exposure, as service-related illnesses. Guidelines issued this month enable veterans who were exposed to radiation in Japan or during the atmospheric testing programs to receive a physical, and if a medical problem is identified, it is up to the physician to establish that it was caused by something other than exposure to radiation. The new approach considerably broadens the range of illnesses that can be treated in VA facilities.

Except for the CDC study, and for data being collected by NAAV, there is very little known about what has happened to veterans exposed to radiation and whether they are suffering statistically normal or abnormal problems of reproduction and aging.

The Senate Veterans Committee has endorsed legislation that mandates a long-term epidemiological study of the atomic veterans in order to get better answers to some of the disturbing questions being raised. Such a study will be costly and the record that can be accumulated will at best be circumstantial. But it would provide atomic veterans a much better idea than they have now as to what price they and their children may have paid for their exposure.

They didn't get much information years ago. They deserve some now.