BELFAST, Maine — One of Jeffery Dean’s close Army buddies died two days ago of a cancer that the Belfast man has no problem connecting to their stint cleaning up nuclear waste together on a tiny South Pacific atoll.
The problem is, that’s not how they see it over at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — and that makes Dean see red. The VA recently responded to a Bangor Daily News query asking why the men stationed on hot, dusty Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s are not designated as “Atomic Veterans.” Dean and his buddy Tod Lentini were among a few thousand American troops tasked with rehabilitating the atoll before it was returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. It was the scene of more than 40 nuclear tests.
“The data accumulated over the three years of the project do not indicate any area or instance of concern over radiological safety. All doses, internal and external were minimal,” VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said in an email.
She said that according to a 1981 report about the Enewetak Atoll cleanup, if a veteran had entered a radiological area during his time on the Marshall Islands, he would have worn a dosimeter — a gadget that measures radiation. Of 12,000 individual records, none showed exposures that exceeded occupational radiation exposure dose limits.
“Overall, the radiation protection program at Enewetak achieved its goal of maintaining personnel radiation exposures as low as reasonably achievable,” Mojay said.
She said that the majority of veterans who served on the atoll use the VA for either primary or supplementary health care and that the agency continues to care for the nation’s veterans.
The designation of Atomic Veteran, narrowly defined by legislation, allows veterans who have developed one of several specific cancers or nonmalignant conditions to be eligible for compensation or free medical care through the VA. They do not have to prove their cancers were caused by radiation.
Dean, a 58-year-old cancer survivor, said Sunday that the VA’s response is not surprising, but it upsets him all the same. His friend, a 62-year-old who spent eight months working on Enewetak Atoll, was diagnosed with prostate cancer just a few months ago. When doctors did more tests, they found the cancer had metastasized through his kidneys and liver. Lentini, a talented mechanic who had moved to Searsport two years ago, couldn’t be helped.
“I didn’t think he’d go this quick,” Dean said of Lentini, adding that the cancer diagnosis pushed him to become an activist. “It became apparent to me somebody’s got to do something. We decided to go out and be vocal about it.”
He said that veterans he knows have written to ask for their dosimeter records from the VA, and when they receive them, all the readings have been blacked out.
He also does not believe the dosimeters they were given back then worked properly.
It’s just common sense, Dean said, that bulldozing radioactive surface soil and moving it to a giant crater with little protective gear would end up causing problems for the men who did the work.
“It’s pure, 100 percent cover-up,” Dean said. “It was the airborne dust that contaminated us. It just absolutely boggles my mind that they can say that.”
Paul Laird, a 58-year-old veteran from Otisfield who has had many health problems, including cancers, landed on the atoll in May 1977. He was tasked with bulldozing vegetation and topsoil in temperatures that rose to 125 degrees.
“I had no protective gear whatsoever. Nothing. Not even a dust mask,” he said. “That stuff would just poof and cover me. I would wrap my T-shirt around my face. I did not feel right from the start. When I’m sitting there on the dozer with no protection and I see a dignitary at the site to check out the project with a full hazmat suit and respirator, that sets up a red flag for me.”
For Laird, getting the Atomic Veterans designation likely would make it easier to get a disability rating from the VA because of his cancers.
“They flat turned me down,” he said. “No proof of radiation exposure.”
U.S. Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree issued a joint statement last week when asked about the veterans’ quest.
“When our local military heroes return home, it’s important for Congress to do everything possible, within its power, to ensure veterans receive access to the health care they were promised and deserve,” they said. “We have reached out to the VA to seek clarity as to why this group of veterans is not currently classified as ‘Atomic Veterans.’”
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said their offices have been in touch with the VA on the issue.
“Sens. Collins and King believe that our veterans deserve nothing but the highest-quality care, and if a veteran has developed an illness as a result of their work in the line of duty, then they deserve the appropriate recognition from the VA,” they said jointly in a statement. “We will continue to work closely with veterans moving forward.”
Dean said he hopes they’ll be recognized and will get the designation and health care they need. But days after Lentini died, he’s worried it will be too little, too late.
“We’re all suffering the consequences,” Dean said. “Vets are dying with no mystery to it.”