Soldiers wait in trenches during a test at the Nevada test site. Credit: Courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Site Office

Veterans who participated in the U.S. atomic testing program and those who were sent back to clean up from the tests continue to push to be recognized for their service. Veterans from both eras say they are hopeful that bills to help them will pass before this Congress closes in early January.

Hundreds of thousands of military personnel were involved in atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, mostly in the Pacific and in Nevada, between 1946 and 1962.

In the 1970s, troops were sent to clean up testing sites in the Marshall Islands.

While the original atomic test veterans are eligible for compensation available to radiation-exposed veterans, the cleanup crews are not.

The champion of the cleanup crews in Congress was U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, who last year introduced legislation to extend atomic veteran compensation to cleanup crews. But Takai died in July from pancreatic cancer. In September, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., introduced a new version of the bill.

Similar legislation was introduced in April by Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

“We were all told it’s safe, and there would be no risk of service, and that the occupational levels of risk were minimal,” a group of cleanup veterans wrote in an open letter to Congress. But many of them now have health issues that they attribute to radiation exposure.

The same was told to the original atomic test veterans, who have fought for decades to be recognized for their service.

Legislation was introduced earlier this year in both the House and Senate that would create a service medal for them.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a measure calling for an “Atomic Veterans Service Medal, to honor retired and former members of the Armed Forces who are radiation-exposed veterans.”

The 2017 House National Defense Authorization Act also includes a provision to create a service medal for atomic veterans.

This isn’t the first attempt by members of Congress to create such a medal. Previous legislation never made it out of committee.

Recognition would mean a lot to veterans who say they feel like they were used as “guinea pigs” in more than 200 atmospheric and underwater atomic tests.

A May report by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting examined atomic veterans’ struggle for compensation and recognition. Our reporting included a documentary produced with Retro Report and an interactive map of atmospheric tests.

Senior Supervising Editor David Ritsher contributed to this story. Jennifer LaFleur can be reached at jlafleur@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @j_la28.

Jennifer LaFleur

Jennifer LaFleur worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September, 2017. Jennifer LaFleur is senior editor for data journalism for Reveal. Previously, she was the director of computer-assisted reporting at ProPublica and has held similar roles at The Dallas Morning News, the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors. She has won awards for her coverage of disability, legal and open government issues. LaFleur is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.