April 21, 2000
By Alan G. Lance, Sr.
President Clinton says he wants to "right the wrongs of the past" committed against factory workers who built America's nuclear arsenal. To each civilian bomb maker suffering from cancers related to radioactive exposure, the administration offers either a lump sum payment of $100,000 or a medical treatment and job retraining package.
If medical records are lost, the sick worker gets compensated. If there is uncertainty about the origin of the cancer, the sick worker gets the benefit of the doubt.
The government should have taken this approach years ago, with respect to "atomic veterans" deliberately exposed to ionizing radiation in nuclear tests conducted in the 1940s, `50s and `60s. "Atomic veterans" wore badges that recorded their exposures so that the government could determine the impact of radiation on the human body. They fought two wars: one for freedom; the other for treatment and compensation from the U.S. government, which for years denied a relationship between these veterans' cancers and their radiation exposure. As long as the government denied the illness were service connected, the government did not have to provide health care and benefits to the sick veterans, thus prolonging agony and hastening death.
The American Legion fought alongside these veterans and successfully represented a major claimant. Orville E. Kelly in 1979 was award disability compensation by the VA for his radiation-linked cancer, a landmark case that set the stage for the awarding of benefits to thousands of "atomic veterans."
The American Legion also fought hard to persuade the government to provide health care and compensation for "atomic veterans" suffering from numerous cancers, including: thyroid, breast, lung, bone, liver, skin, esophageal, stomach, colon, ovarian, rectal, prostate, pancreatic, kidney, urinary bladder, salivary gland, multiple myeloma, posterior subcapsurar cataracts, non-malignant thyroid nodular disease, parathyroid adenoma, tumors of the brain and central nervous system, and lymphomas other than Hodgkin's disease.
However, many sick veterans do not get the benefit of the doubt that their conditions are service-connected and therefore rely on American Legion service officers to help them travel an arduous road to compensation. Some sick veterans are awarded health care and benefits. Some are not.
Many veterans whose claims slipped through the government's cavernous cracks are now frail, elderly, and overwhelmed as much by betrayal as illness. Further, there are conditions that Congress has yet to make compensable for health care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, including chronic lymphatic (lymphocytic) leukemia.
A White House panel poured over scientific studies of accelerated cancer rates among civilian nuclear bomb makers. The case for compensating civilian nuclear workers was compelling; no less compelling than the recent cancer figures on patriots who in their young adulthood followed orders and paid the price.
An Institute of Medicine study released on October found a 50 percent higher leukemia-death rate among land-based military personnel in the Nevada desert who participated in atomic experiments, compared to land-based troops who did not. Death rates for prostate and nasal cancers were upwards of 20 percent higher for atomic-test participants, according to the IOM study.
Science, once again, proved what The American Legion contended for two generations, unfortunately through decades of government denials: Ionizing radiation contribute to cancer in certain veterans.
The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, is a long-standing advocate of compensation and health care for "atomic veterans." As its national commander, I would stand proudly with any administration that would announce a new position: That ailing veterans henceforth exposed to radiation in any form will receive the benefit of the doubt that their illnesses are service-connected. They will be provide hassle-free medical care and just compensation in the Department of Veterans Affairs medial and benefits systems.
No denial. No compensatory shell games. Just the same treatment the administration today extends to civilian victims of a nuclear nightmare. That is what the men and women of The American Legion want, and that is what our nation's veteran have earned.
Alan G. Lance, Sr., is national commander for the 2.8 million member American Legion and Attorney General of Idaho.