Harry Coppola counts his future in terms of days, and he is bitter about the government officials who measure their paperwork in terms of years -- and, more particularly, in terms of election-year presidential politics.
Thirty-five years ago, Coppola was a combat-hardened, 24-year-old U.S. Marine, whose machine-gun covered his buddies while they raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi. Coppola was wounded by Japanese shrapnel on Iwo Jima.
He recovered from the Marines' most famous battle of World War II in time to be one of the first Americans sent into Nagasaki after its virtual oblieration by the second atomic bomb. Just 44 days after the nuclear explosion, he and fellow Marines arrived in the Japanese city to serve as guards during cleanup operations.
It was there, Coppola claims, that he was dealt a death sentence -- not by the enemy he had fought in the war, but by the government he had served with uncomplaining gallantry. It was in Nagasaki, Coppola complains, that he was exposed to radiation that has doomed him to live the last days of his life in the constant, acute pain of cancer.
Coppola suffers from a form of bonemarrow cancer known as multiple myeloma. Independent researchers have found at least two other Marines in his outfit, who are suffering from the same disease. Yet the federal government has steadfastly refused to recognize any connection between Coppola's cancer and his tour of duty in Nagasaki after the atomic blast.
For more than a year now, the former Marine corporal has been loudly and publicly fighting the bureaucrats in Washington, trying to get the Veteran's Adminsitration to pay for the constant blood transfusions and other medical care that keep him alive. Along the way, his hopes have been jerked up and down like a yo-yo -- with a timing that seems more closely-related to presidential primaries than to simple justice.
Last November, a few days before Jimmy Carter faced Teddy Kennedy in the Florida caucus, Coppola, who lives in Lake Worth, Fla., got a call from Ellen Goldstein, an assistant director of the White House domestic policy staff. She assured him that the Carter administration was concerned about him and other GI survivors of atomic exposure, and promised that his claim would get personal attention. She then called Charles Peckarsky, a VA official, and asked him to call Coppola.
Coppola claims that Peckarsky promised he'd get full compensation benefits if he'd just keep his mouth shut for a month. Peckarsky, a 34-year VA employee, denies any such promise. In any case, the VA early this year turned down Coppola's claim.
Then, just 10 days before the Florida delegates to the Democratic Convention were chosen by the caucus delegates, Coppola got some more attention from the Carter administration. This time it was the head of the VA, Max Cleland.
A meeting was arranged in a hotel lobby in Palm Beach. But under ground rules laid down by Cleland, the stricken ex-GI could not bring any witnesses or lawyers. Cleland explained to my associate Howard Rosenberg that the reason was because the meeting was "highly irregular." Said Cleland: "It was like a Supreme Court justice meeting with someone who has a case pending in lower court."
Although Coppola was forbidden to bring anyone with him to the "one-on-one" meeting; Cleland was accompanied by a top assistant, David Welch.
Coppola said later that Cleland said he was going to provide help. "But I got nothing," Coppola said.
In fact, Cleland did see that Coppola's case was expedited through the mass of red tape that snarls most veterans' claims. A review of his claim was scheduled for March 11 -- one day after the Florida delegate selection.
But the claim was denied, on the same grounds that the claims of other "atomic soldiers" have been denied: Coppola had produced no evidence of his cancer within one year after his discharge from the Marines. This, despite the fact that many similar cancers take 15, 20 to even 30 years to show up.
Coppola dug up evidence to support his claim. He tracked down Japanese witnesses whom he had met in Nagasaki. He found decades-old documents that showed he was telling the truth.
The government rebutted his evidence with claims that the radiation dosage encountered by servicemen in Nagasaki was harmless. But recently discovered documents show that American research teams found low-level radiation in Nagasaki that was not only twice the level now considered safe for nuclear plant employees, but more than 10 times the level the government claims Coppola was exposed to. The government doesn't even take into account the deadly carcinogenic dust that may have been inhaled or ingested.
Coppola realizes that there is more at stake than the $800-a-month disability pension he seeks. If he succeeds, a precedent might be set -- a precedent that might cost the government and the nuclear industry millions.
Coppola final recourse is the board of veteran appeals, which has overturned a number of VA decisions against "atomic soldiers." VA administrator Cleland insists that Coppola's case is "still very much alive."
Unfortunately for Harry Cappola, he may not be when his case moves to its final bureaucratic forum.