With over 195,000 to 225,000 Atomic Veterans that served between 1945 to 1962 being exposed to radiation, the long fight to get recognized is finally over. After being sworn to secrecy about the nuclear program of the United States, these veterans have fought against diseases and disabilities that have resulted from their time serving within active nuclear test sites or those exposed to atomic bomb effects during the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings.

Veterans Day parade in Knoxville, Tenn, 2011. Standing in the red jacket is former WWII POW John W. Clark, who was held prisoner in Japan in Nagasaki until the atomic bomb was dropped there (DVIDS). Source: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/487388/81st-rsc-commander-attends-veterans-day-activities-knoxville
Veterans Day parade in Knoxville, Tenn, 2011. Standing in the red jacket is former WWII POW John W. Clark, who was held prisoner in Japan in Nagasaki until the atomic bomb was dropped there (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Joel Quebec/DVIDS).

Last December 27, 2021, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was signed into law by President Biden. In this legislation, atomic veterans were recognized to emphasize their contribution to the military success of the nuclear weapons program.

The policy creates a special “Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal” to honor veterans and their families who have served willingly, exposing their bodies to radition in testing the effects of nuclear weapons under development.

US Representative Jim McGovern, a long-time peace advocate, expressed both his happiness and grief with the law’s passage. He stated that it took an incredibly long time for US atomic veterans to be publicly acknowledged, with many dying due to illnesses suspected of being induced by their radiation exposure. He was notably the congressman who filed the first Atomic Veterans Service Medal Act in 2014, which is why the law’s passage is an incredible win for his advocacy.

Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA)

Joe Mondello, a constituent of McGovern and an atomic veteran himself, stated that these veterans were examples of how humans were used as laboratory animals. He abhorred that the US government did not acknowledge atomic veterans until former president George H.W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990. RECA is a financial compensation law for atomic veterans that stipulates that veterans who developed diseases due to radiation exposure were entitled to one-time benefits payments ranging from:

  • $50,000 for veterans or individuals residing or working within the vicinity of the Nevada National Security Test Site.
  • $75,000 for veterans who were exposed to nuclear weapons during atmospheric testing.
  • $100,000 for veterans and workers who were uranium miners and all jobs relating to Uranium mining.
The Mike Test under Operation Ivy conducted in 1952 at Enewetak Atoll (Atomic Heritage Foundation). Source: https://www.atomicheritage.org/location/marshall-islands
The Mike Test under Operation Ivy conducted in 1952 at Enewetak Atoll (Atomic Heritage Foundation).

Many of these atomic veterans were not told by the US government about the nature of work that they were to do. More so, even if they were informed, officials did not notify them of the potential health risks involved with tasks such as Uranium mining and nuclear waste-clean ups. Some of the workers were reportedly Native Americans, which did not have any marriage licenses required for widows or widowers to receive their partner’s compensation.

Many veterans also found it very tedious and difficult to obtain compensation as they were ultimately rejected. As a result, thousands of atomic veterans died without compensation or obtaining access to monitored health care to manage their conditions. Thus, the RECA was amended to improve its functionality.

The new law does not specify who exactly qualifies for the commemorative medal. However, it does designate the Department of Defense to determine which veterans are eligible through screening. President of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, Mr. Kieth Kiefer, advocates that veterans who were part of the nuclear waste clean-up in the Marshall Islands and those who responded to the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 2011 should be included in the list. As a result, he is personally creating a list of atomic veterans he thinks should be awarded by the Department of Defense.

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