AGENT ORANGE victims thought they had retired the cup in the raw deal division. They are being hard pressed for the trophy by another group of veterans who also in line of duty were exposed to dangers they were neither warned about nor protected against.
These are World War II veterans whose service to their country took them to "ground zero" during those years when the United States was enthusiastically testing its new toy, the atomic bomb.
For 10 years, the government denied that Agent Orange was responsible for the mysterious ailments, ranging from skin rashes to birth defects in their children, which Vietnam veterans brought home with them.
But now that it has had to buy Times Beach, the Missouri town which dioxin made unfit for human habitiation, the government can no longer insist that dioxin is really not a health hazard.
Heroic efforts in Congress won the veterans treatment for Agent Orange in VA hospitals. Rep. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has introduced a bill for compensation for them. A study which the VA sat on for three years is now in the hands of the Center for Disease Control.
But for the atomic veterans, who decades ago were ordered to areas saturated with radiation, the fight has just begun. They organized themselves as the National Association of Atomic Veterans only four years ago and opened a Washington office in February. The VA wouldn't treat them, rejected their claims and clings to the official view that a little radiation won't hurt you.
The veterans' first order of business is to have their own Memorial Day. They have a bill in Congress to make July 16, the anniversary of the first atomic bomb testing in the United States, Atomic Veterans Commemorative Day. People tell them they should spend their time pushing for tangible expressions of gratitude. Apparently, from 30 years of official callousness they have a deep need for an acknowledgement of their existence.
Of the 3,400 claims for atomic exposure filed by atomic veterans, only 69 have been honored.
When the bureacrats are asked why they could honor 69 and not the rest, the answer was that they have to study each individual case. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) pressed the VA to upgrade the priority for treating atomic veterans. But a directive from VA leaves it to the discretion of local doctors to decide whether a veteran's ailments are related to the effects of ionizing radiation.
But a new report, commissioned by the Committee for International Radiation Resesearch and Training Institute, may put an end to all that.
The work of Dr. Arjun Makhijani and David Albright, the report is based on the papers of Col. Stafford Warren, a doctor who was the chief of the Radiological Safety Section at Operation Crossroads, experimental underwater blasts, the second of which took place at Bikini on July 25, 1946. Forty-two thousand American servicemen were involved.
Dr. Warren died last year and left his papers to the UCLA library, where they were discovered by an atomic veteran. His account shows that the precautions taken for the men were minimal. Film badges, which record the levels of radiation, were issued only to a few, and many of them have been lost. What is clear is that safety measures were subordinate to what was called "a hairy -chested" approach to testing the blockbusters the U.S. alone possessed at the time.
On the day of the test, code named "Baker," the men were sent into the radioactive lagoon and the beaches to measure radioactivity and retrieve instruments. Nobody knew how to decontaminate a ship, but the men were ordered aboard within three days of the explosion to clean them up. The target ships were so contaminated, most of them had to be sunk.
"The tolerance limits at Bikini were more than 5,000 times the allowable limit of 5 millirems per year that has been set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for nuclear power plant operators," according to the report. The Nuclear Defense Agency, nonetheless insists that in all atomic tests, "exposures generally were well within established radiation exposure limits, and there was no reason to expect any increased health risk."
A recent NAVA survey of its 12,500 members showed a 39 percent incidence of cancer.
At a hearing last week, Gen. Harry Griffith, director of the Nuclear Defense Agency, was questioned about the radioactive report. He hadn't read it, he said.
He was further asked why his agency had not studied such basic documents as those of the medical officer at Operation Crossroads.
An aide piped up brightly, "We can't go looking in everybody's garage."
The atomic veterans have become the veterans that the government would most like to forget on Memorial Day.