Toxic paradise

Crystal white sand, clear blue water and coconut palm trees. Add tropical weather, and you have an atmosphere more suited for a cruise-liner destination than a carcinogen. Yet for thousands of veterans who participated in atomic cleanup operations in the late 1970s, Enewetak Atoll was no Fantasy Island.

“Invisible bullets entered our bodies, and we carry them with us daily,” says Paul Laird, a three-time cancer survivor from Otisfield, Maine. The 58-year-old Army veteran operated a bulldozer on Enewetak for the 84th Engineer Battalion in 1977. “We were told to do a job. You either did the job or you faced Leavenworth (federal prison).”

Enewetak was the site of 43 U.S. nuclear tests from 1948 to 1958. Nearly 20 years after the last test, soldiers like Laird returned to the chain of islands with a different mission: to clean up and contain the debris.

“We didn’t worry much about it,” says Gary Pulis, a cleanup veteran who lives in Auburn, Ind. “Nothing was ever going to harm us. We were young. We were invincible.”

Time has shown that to be untrue. Even for men in their late 50s and 60s, veterans of the Enewetak cleanup suffer from an alarmingly high rate of cancer and face other serious health issues. Laird estimates that two-thirds of the members of the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project Facebook group have had sicknesses that could be related to radiation exposure. One of the group’s founders, Richard Masculine, died of cancer in 2013.

U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, estimates that the cancer rate among the cleanup workers is about 35 percent. In November, he introduced the Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, H.R. 3870, which would provide for the treatment and service-connection presumption of certain disabilities for Enewetak cleanup veterans. 

“These men and women risked their lives in answering the call of duty to serve their country and are suffering as a consequence,” Takai said. “We as a nation need to take care of our veterans, and I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting them and thanking them for their service. Let us honor the past generations and remember that once a soldier, always a soldier.”

Although Takai’s bill has picked up several sponsors from both parties, it is still awaiting companion legislation in the Senate. The website only gives the bill a 3 percent chance of being enacted into law.

Paul Griego, who worked at Enewetak as a civilian contractor in 1978, says he believes that a large number of the approximately 6,000 personnel who participated in the cleanup are dead. 

“After four years of searching on the Internet, we have found only 323 survivors,” he says. “The government has Social Security numbers for every one of us who served there. Under normal mortality rates, there should be about 5,300 of us still alive. But the government doesn’t want to tell us how many are still here.”

Unlike veterans who participated in actual nuclear testing that occurred at sites throughout the Pacific and in remote areas of the United States, Enewetak Atoll cleanup veterans are not designated “atomic veterans,” even though plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Veterans who apply for benefits related to illnesses possibly connected to radioactive exposure during the cleanup are routinely denied.

“At 43, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer,” says Jeff Dean of Belfast, Maine. “My cancer was military-related, but they will not recognize any of us as atomic veterans. I can feel it. My cancer treatment was $250,000, and after insurance I had to pay 20 percent. VA says we were adequately protected, but I feel like we were lab rats.”

The passing of a good friend and Army buddy prompted Dean to speak out. 

“I lived with him for three years,” he says. “His name was Tod Lentini. He said, ‘I feel lucky, no side effects.’ Two months later he was dead. I walked right down to the Bangor Daily News and then gave interviews to Stars and Stripes and the local NBC channel.”

Old military photos are as compelling as the narratives. In them, the men are as likely to be wearing shorts and sandals as hazmat suits. 

“If we stayed in those suits, there is no way we could have met their deadlines,” says retired Maj. Harold Rumzek, who served as the Air Force element commander on the atoll in 1977. “We didn’t have enough suits to use anyway.”

Even the official DoD publication The Airman acknowledged the impracticality of the gear. 

“Under the stifling tropical sun, the temperatures inside the anticontamination can reach 185 degrees,” the magazine reported in its July 1978 issue. 

“We had guys passing out within 20 minutes,” Senior Master Sgt. Bobby Baird told The Airman.

Even so, the advice given in a 1980 report by “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer – “wear rubber boots and surgical masks” – seems quaint by today’s safety standards.   

With a doctorate in health psychology from the University of North Texas under his belt, Rumzek, 77, is far more cynical today about the cleanup mission than he was 38 years ago. “I took the radiation seriously,” Rumzek says. “Like everyone else, I was stupid enough to believe they would take care of us. We trusted them (the government). I wouldn’t send anybody to any place I wouldn’t go.”

Like other Enewetak veterans, Rumzek says he has no faith that the dosimetry badges they used provided accurate readings of radiation levels. 

“If there’s no radiation, then why did we spend two and a half years pouring concrete into a mountain?” he asks. “They said the highest radiation found was equal to a dental X-ray. That was all BS. What about the water we drank and the water we swam in?”

If Takai’s legislation passes in its current form, Griego wouldn’t reap any benefits; the bill concerns only military veterans, not civilian contractors. 

“I was hired because I worked in a health physics lab in Albuquerque for two years,” he says. “I had no college degree but suddenly, at 21, I’m an environmental sampling operations supervisor at Enewetak. Why didn’t they hire someone wiser, more educated and experienced? They wouldn’t have gone there.” 

Though Griego lived on the main Enewetak island – often called the “clean island” – he worked on others in the atoll that were considered more risky. “I worked on 15 to 20 contaminated islands and never saw a scientist or health physicist on any one of them,” he says.

When most of the task force members asked for their dosimetry readings, the news was almost too good to be true, he adds. “We would get reports back that the reading were 0.00, which is about as likely as getting 777 on a slot machine.”

Dean says it’s impossible to believe they weren’t exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. “How could we not have been?” he asks. “Our pores were open because of the heat. We kicked up dust, and we were breathing it in.”

Kenneth Brownell, a cancer survivor and cleanup veteran living in Albany, N.Y., says he worries about the negative health effects he may have passed on to his children. 

“We have insurance through my job, but what if his cancer comes back?” wonders Brownell’s wife, Kathi. “Even if I knew he’d be covered by VA, it would be a relief. The medical bills alone can be catastrophic. I’m blessed to have insurance, but if, God forbid, something happens to me, what does he do? It’s not easy.”

Laird has questions, too. “I love my country, and I’d fight for it,” he says. “But why do they just use us and forget about us?”  

John Raughter is deputy director of media relations for the national commander of The American Legion.