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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Atomic Veterans Offered Certificates For Their Sacrifice

 August 21, 2019 at 10:29 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The Department of Defense plans to award certificates to as many as half a million veterans who were exposed to radiation during nuclear weapons tests. The veterans served between 1945 and 1992 but Stephanie Calambini reports for the American homefront project that many of the so-called atomic veterans are not impressed. Speaker 2: 00:22 84 year old Tom Botchy of Ormond beach, Florida is flipping through a scrapbook. He keeps of old pictures and articles about his time in the air force. Dash was our flight crew here. Nach me. He never went to war, but he still feels like he was part of history. In 1958 Bauchi was involved in dozens of atomic tests on the n a we talk atoll in the Pacific. He serviced planes that flew through mushroom clouds after explosions while he and his comrades watched an awe from the island. Maybe 10 miles away. Speaker 3: 00:56 You were a young kid, you know, you're out there and say, wow, look what they're doing. Look at this. You know, and they never told us, you know, the radiation, uh, after effects or anything. Speaker 2: 01:06 Archie points himself out in a photo of young men wearing khaki shorts, short sleeve shirts and baseball caps. Speaker 3: 01:12 That was our protective clothing for the atomic bombs. Speaker 2: 01:16 After decades of being sworn to secrecy, atomic veterans were finally able to share their experiences in the late nineties many realized they suffered from similar health problems and the VA expanded benefits for some whose diseases the government deemed were linked to radiation exposure. Bace his heart problems didn't qualify, but he pushed for years with the National Association of atomic veterans to at least get a service medal. Speaker 3: 01:42 It felt that there needed to be some recognition of those of us that were there that did this, you know, for the country but forgotten. Speaker 2: 01:51 But the military says giving out metals for non-combat hazardous service is inconsistent with its awards program. Still the government is now acknowledging the atomic veterans. Congress required the Pentagon to issue certificates to eligible vets who request them. They haven't started going out yet, but some veterans and their families are disappointed they'll only receive a piece of paper. Speaker 4: 02:14 That's an insult really to these men. Speaker 2: 02:17 That's Judith Frederick, her late husband Walter was involved in nuclear tests in Nevada in 1955 the army veteran died in 2017 after battling radiation related skin cancers and to nerve disease for decades. Speaker 4: 02:31 A metal is something special and the atomic veterans are a special class. They gave their lives for this country and they are still giving their lives for this country. Just like anybody that goes to Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and get shot. Speaker 2: 02:49 It's not the first time non war time veterans have lost a similar fight. People who served during the Cold War era also pushed for metals but got certificates retired. Fred Bork is a military historian who's written about awards. He says he understands why the atomic veterans want to metal but says it's reasonable. The Pentagon limits who gets them. Speaker 5: 03:09 There's only so much money to go around and if I'm trying to really take care of my people who were on active duty and I want to motivate them today that my policy and my focus has to be on the present and the future Speaker 2: 03:25 still. Judith Frederick is holding out hope she'll get a medal for her husband one day. Although she says he was so fed up with the military and the VA, that by the time he died, he had no interest in an award. Let's just say he thought it was too little, too late. I feel a little differently about it. Sitting at her Fort Lauderdale kitchen table, she clutches a letter he wrote to the government in the 80s as he fought for compensation. It's signed yours truly Guinea pig. Frederick says she wants the metal to help her grandkids. Remember her husband's service and sacrifice. I'm Stephanie Columbian here in Tampa. This story was produced by the American homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting. Speaker 6: 04:18 Uh.

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More than 500,000 American veterans were exposed to nuclear weapons tests from the 1940s to the early 1990s. Now the veterans who were exposed to the radiation from the weapons program will be offered a certificate marking their contribution.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments