Atomic clean-up veterans asking for help 40 years later

BRIDGTON, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- When Americans join the military, there is an understanding that if they are harmed while serving their country, their country will take care of them. Some veterans in Maine who did unusual work on a remote Pacific island some four decades ago feel the government has turned its back on them.

"I am a stage four cancer survivor. We deserve to be recognized and we need the medical assistance, you know? There are a lot of people who are now sick and battling for their lives," said Jeff Dean.

The Marshal Islands were used as nuclear testing grounds back in the late 1940s. In the 1960s, members of the Army were called in to clean up the waste. Maine veterans Dean and Laird helped clean up Enewetak Island for several months. Dean said he knew it was going to be a dirty job, but was happy to serve his county.

Both men said the Army told them was no danger from exposure while cleaning up. Some soldiers were given radon badges to indicate if they were being exposed to any nuclear waste or radiation. They said, however, those badges did not detect the dust in the air they breathed all day.

Many of the Army veterans who worked on the island have been diagnosed with cancer. Laird considered himself one of the lucky ones until seven years ago. It was then he was was diagnosed with kidney and bladder cancer at the same time.

"My three friends who are very sick right now, they have been documented as exposure to radiation," said Dean.

However, the U.S. government hasn't given officially recognition to the group that served as atomic veterans.

"Now that we need help, it feels like they have turned their back on us and they just want it to go away," said Dean.

Under federal law, there is funding for veterans who were exposed to radiation, also known as "Atomic Vets." Those who cleaned up on the island of Enewetak are not considered a part of that category and therefore are not able to get help with medical bills.

The Enewetak Atomic Clean-up Veterans group wants the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize those who served and include them in the Atomic Vets category.

"A lot of people look at us as if we weren't in a wartime situation, so they look down on you because we never got shot. We did get shot at, but it was with invisible bullets that went right through our body and they are still there. They are inside us right now and can take any of us out at any time," said Laird.

Senator Angus King's office said it's aware of the issue and has contacted the Department of Veteran Affairs.

If you served during the Enewetak clean-up or want to get involved additional information is available on this website.


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