Honorable Few – Capt. J.J. Harris

Marine Corps League Detachment #1302

Time is running out to recognize, compensate aging atomic veterans

In 1978, from my station at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, I received the order to deploy to the Marshall Islands to assist with the Enewetak Atoll Radiological Cleanup Project. I was assured that as part of this deployment, I would not receive any more radiation than I would from walking the streets of New York City. I worked 12-hour days, six days a week, digging up irradiated soil and drinking heavily irradiated water. Since returning, I’ve experienced myriad health problems, including sterility, autoimmune diseases, degenerative bone disease, and spinal stenosis. By the age of 40, I was told I had the bone structure of a ninety-year-old.

I am far from the only victim. The Departments of Veterans Affairs is overwhelmingly failing to care for those who served in nuclear-related operations, from U.S. nuclear testing to environmental cleanup, and now Congress is racing the clock to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) before it expires June 10. As the custodian of our national defense, Congress has a responsibility to care for the Americans, veterans and civilians alike, who risked life and limb to protect our fellow countrymen.

As the National Commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, I work with veterans whose lives were forever changed by exposure to radiation and other toxins. One thing that has remained stagnant since I began this advocacy 18 years ago is that the path to financial help is staggeringly difficult. Many veterans petition the VA for over a decade before receiving compensation. Even then, success is far from certain: from August 2022 to August 2023, the VA reportedly rejected 86% of radiation-related claims.

Radiation exposure is a triple whammy: the effects of radiation can take decades to appear, leaving aging veterans too sick to work, all while medical expenses are rising. Financial compensation through RECA, which comes in one lump sum, is often the difference between a veteran and their family going bankrupt or becoming homeless, and financial stability.

The VA’s failure to provide timely benefits makes RECA a critical lifeline for many veterans. Created in 1990 to provide compensation to those sickened by U.S. nuclear tests and administered through the Department of Justice, RECA includes benefits for “onsite participants” of U.S. nuclear testing sites, some populations who lived downwind of test sites, and select uranium workers.

RECA has helped atomic veterans like Mike Cobb, from California. Cobb witnessed 21 nuclear tests at the Pacific Proving Grounds as part of Operation Dominic. He was one of the few men in his unit equipped with protective gear – and even then, it was inadequate: just goggles. Sixty years later, Cobb was diagnosed with bladder cancer, an illness associated with radiation exposure and successfully received compensation through RECA.

RECA is an efficient option for atomic veterans who need help now. The last above-ground nuclear tests in the United States were in 1962, meaning the youngest on-site participants are nearing their 80s. They do not have decades to wait for the VA to approve their claim. But a veteran applying for RECA can have help in hand in just six to twelve months. RECA includes fewer benefits than the VA, but is much simpler to navigate and has been a godsend to many veterans.

As of May 1, $2.6 billion has reached over 41,000 claimants through the RECA program. To put this number in perspective, the U.S. plans to spend approximately $50 billion per year to maintain its nuclear forces over the next decade — almost 20 times the historical cost of RECA.

But RECA is in jeopardy. If it is allowed to expire in June, atomic veterans will be left without a meaningful path to timely compensation.

For decades, Congress has ignored the many communities that have been excluded from RECA, like the “downwinders” of the Trinity Test, the first-ever nuclear weapons test in New Mexico. On March 7, the Senate voted 69-30 to reauthorize RECA and finally include some of these communities that were left out. The bill isn’t perfect – for one, it doesn’t include cleanup veterans like myself, who were sent in after the nuclear tests. But it is critically important for atomic veterans that RECA be expanded, and not be allowed to expire.

I often hear from struggling veterans that they fear the government is simply waiting for them to die. It doesn’t have to be this way. Extending and expanding RECA can give atomic veterans the gift of time, allowing them to focus on their health and their families, rather than fighting a bureaucratic behemoth for their due. We owe them that much.

Keith Kiefer is an Enewetak radiological cleanup veteran and the national commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans.