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Monday, June 12, 2006

'ATOMIC VETERANS' SEEK COMPENSATION




Time is running out, say those who believe their health problems are connected to long-ago nuclear tests

By: American-Statesman Staff
June 10, 2006

After the atomic blasts, Joe Terry followed the fallout.

In 1958 in Enewetak, an atoll in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, he worked as a chief radarman for the U.S. Navy, tracking radioactive cloud location and speed.

"Everytime it rained, the ship was hotter than a pistol," said Terry, 75, after telling his story to a federal panel that met in Austin this week. "We didn't realize what it really was---you don't feel it."

"But thirty years after, you really feel it."

Terry, a great-grandfather from Houston, was one of about 450,000 military personnel and civilians involved in nuclear tests in Nevada or the Pacific from 1945 to 1962, or who served in the post-World War II occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

They are atomic veterans.

They suffer from a catlog of cancers and other diseases that they think are linked to radiation exposure.

And they say that the federal government's response has been sluggish and inadequate.

Fewer than 220,000 survive.

Terry's list of ailments has included skin cancer, prostate cancer, hypertension, diabetes and a disease that he says has stumped his doctors and is eating away at his muscles.

He and about 10 other veterans made their case Thursday and Friday at an Austin meeting of a federal advisory board overseeing government response to the veterans' claims.

Determining whether radiation exposure led to the diseases, as opposed to old age or other factors, involves scientific analysis by a federal agency called the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Was the veteran actually exposed to radiation? (Sometimes that's hard to prove because the work was usually classified). How much exposure did he or she receive? What is the probability that that level of exposure would lead to this type of cancer in a person with characteristics?

About one in 1,000 atomic veterans could have developed cancer because of their exposure while in the military, said members of the panel, which includes physicists, doctors and an expert in ethics. That is based on the average "dose" of radiation that the veterans are thought to have received.

"There's a misunderstanding among the entire American public," said retired Navy Vice Adm. James Zimble, chairman of the Veterans' Advisory Board on Dose Reconstruction and a former surgeon general of the U.S. Navy. "There's an unrealistic fear of ionizing radiation."

***Why? "Just" because he says so? He works for the Bush Administration. Nobody believes him!

Nonsense, said R. J. Ritter, national commander of the 3,000-member nonprofit National Association of Atomic Veterans Inc., which formed in 1979.

"It's not good enough; it's not conclusive," the Houston resident said of the board's findings. "There are guys dying---that's conclusive."

Ritter, the sole surviving member of a seven-member team of Navy deep-sea divers stationed at Bikini Atoll in 1952, would like to see every veteran who could possibly have been exposed receive compensation. And he'd like to see the end of the "dose reconstruction" program.

That program will cost the federal government $12M this budget year.

More than 1,400 claims from atomic veterans are stuck in a backlog created when the Department of Veterans returned more than 1,200 denied claims to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in 2003 for review. Cases stuck in the system are an average of three years old.

Thomas Pamperin, the VA's compensation and pension service assistant director for policy, could not say how many atomic veterans receive health benefits because of radiation exposure. But he said that the group is more likely to receive compensation than other veterans. About 11% of the nation's 24.5 million living veterans receive medical benefits.

Thomas Caffarello or Orlando, Fla, who monitored radiation levels during atomic bomb tests in Kwajalein in 1948, now has thyroid cancer, urinary bladder cancer, skin cancer and other ailments. For more than a decade, he has been trying to prove to the government that his diseases are connected to his work in the Marshall Islands.

"They're waiting for all of us to die," he said.


VETERANS' ADVISORY BOARD ON DOSE RECONSTRUCTION

* Oversees government response to atomic veterans' medical claims.

* Assists the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs in communicating with veterans.

* Met this week in ustin; first meeting was last year in Tampa, Fla.; also met in January in Los Angeles. Next meeting is in Hampton, Va., in November.





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