BELFAST, Maine — Jeffery Dean, the youngest of four brothers who grew up in rural Knox County in the 1970s, was a typical kid. He helped with haying at local farms, went lobstering in the summers and did well enough in high school to graduate but not well enough to go to college.
Instead, he signed up for a stint in the U.S. Army. Two weeks after he graduated from high school, he was on a bus and gone.
“It was my first time out of the state of Maine,” Dean, now a 58-year-old carpenter who sometimes forgets how to finish the sentences he started, recalled this week. “That was a big learning experience.”
The young soldier, just 19 then, couldn’t have imagined the lifelong journey he ended up taking thanks to his three-year-stint in the Army. Familiar with boats, he had signed up to be a watercraft operator and was stationed at Fort Story in Virginia Beach. But soon enough, he was transported to the other side of the world — to a tiny Pacific Ocean atoll with a hard-to-pronounce name. Enewetak Atoll — a chain of about 40 islets that surround a large lagoon — is part of the Marshall Islands, and to the naked eye, there wasn’t much there except for sandy white beaches and the gray reef sharks that haunted the waters around the coral reef.
Although Dean couldn’t see it, there was something else in the atoll that he believes ended up haunting his whole life: radioactive contamination from the atomic and hydrogen bombs that the American military had tested on the atoll a few decades before. He and his fellow soldiers had just one mission to accomplish during their stint in the Pacific — to clean up and rehabilitate the atoll before it was returned to the people of the Marshall Islands.
Many of the men who were part of the cleanup mission have connected serious health concerns that are plaguing them today with their work on the atoll 40 years ago. Some have formed a group called the Atomic Cleanup Vets with the goal of helping each other with information and moral support during challenging times. Another goal is to be recognized as “Atomic Veterans,” a category defined in legislation that designates veterans who participated in above-ground nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, who were part of the U.S. military occupation in or around Hiroshima or Nagasaki before 1946, or who were among the prisoners of war held in or near Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
This designation allows veterans who have developed one of several specific cancers or nonmalignant conditions to be eligible for compensation or free medical care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They do not have to prove their cancers were caused by radiation.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Angus King confirmed that his office has heard from veterans in similar situations, and is working with them and the VA on a case-by-case basis.
“Senator King’s office is aware of the issue and his staff has been in touch with the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Scott Ogden, spokesman for the senator, wrote in an email to the BDN. “Our veterans have served our nation with honor and distinction, and if they suffer from illnesses resulting from their work in the line of duty, then they deserve recognition from the VA. Senator King’s office will continue to work with Maine veterans and the VA on this issue moving forward.”
A VA spokesperson from Washington, D.C., contacted on Monday did not immediately have any response to questions about why the veterans who served on Enewetak Atoll do not have the Atomic Veterans designation.
According to the Marshall Islands dose assessment and radioecology program’s website, approximately 4,000 American servicemen assisted in what became known as the Enewetak Radiological Support Project. They were there between 1977 and 1980, working to scrape 73,000 cubic meters of surface soil off six different islands on the atoll. They deposited the radioactive soil into the Cactus Crater on Runit Island, part of the atoll, then capped the crater with a thick layer of concrete.
Dean remembers that it was breathlessly hot on the islands, the temperatures rising to as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit. The young soldiers who worked to remove and consolidate the soil contaminated with cesium-137, plutonium and other heavy radioactive elements often wore few clothes and almost nothing in the way of protective gear. Somewhere, he said, there’s a photograph of him unloading atomic waste out of the well deck of his amphibious craft wearing only sneakers and shorts.
“We were basically expendable guinea pigs. They could have taken measures to make it safer. And the place was red hot, no question about it,” he said. “We had no idea. They said, yeah, don’t worry about it. They didn’t even really tell us what was going on.”
His job on the atoll was to drive the amphibious craft that brought the soldiers around the atoll. They worked six days a week in 12-hour shifts, and in their downtime they would snorkel or dive along the reef. Dean made friends with some of the other 800 young American men who were stationed there at the same time, and after four months of that, he left the atoll for good.
But, Dean believes, he and his buddies brought the worst part of the atoll home with them. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which is now in remission but was at stage 4 at one point. His friends also have had an awful lot of health problems, Dean said, including bone cancer, blood cancer and liver cancer. The carpenter believes that some of his other health troubles, including debilitating arthritis and a neurological condition that he calls “chemo brain,” which has affected his short-term memory, could be connected to his time in the South Pacific.
Dean is working now to get some kind of disability rating from the Veterans Affairs department. He’s hopeful that he’ll get some kind of financial help from the government, but is not optimistic about his chances in the bigger picture.
“We don’t know how many of us have already died of cancer. We know it’s high,” he said. “We weren’t in the war, but we brought the enemy back with us, and it’s going to get us all in the end.”