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Atomic Veterans The Human Fallout of the Bomb By Jon Weist Arlington VODA WEST returned from World War II with a Japanese soldier’s combat belt, a banner with the name of the ship that carried him into Nagasaki Bay, and photographs of Nagasaki a month after the atomic bomb was dropped. The belt is frail and tears easily, as does the banner. The photographs have yellowed around the edges. But the blood clots in his legs and knots on his stomach, which he says were caused by exposure to the radiation that hung over Japan in September, 1945, have held up quite well. West, 67, is retired and living in Decatur. Since 1976 after two heart attacks in ’73 and one in ’76 he has received 100% disability pay from the Veterans Administration. Officially, the disability is for jungle rot he contracted in the South Pacific. He said the VA has never said a word about his problems being related to radiation exposure. “I’ve had every kind of test you could think of done. One time there were seven doctors in my room,” he said. “They haven’t said a thing. I told them I was an atomic vet. There wasn’t another word said about it or nothing.” West is one of between 225,000 and 250,000 veterans who were exposed to radiation either during World War II or during the atomic-bomb testing in the late 1940s and mid-’50s. As a veteran who is receiving full disability, he’s one of the lucky ones, even if he isn’t getting it for the right reasons. Getting the government to admit liability for radiation-related diseases has been an agonizingly slow process, and even now that the situation is changing, it’s too late for scores of veterans and their families. West said that, if the government knew the radiation was dangerous, he and his Jon Weist is a reporter for the Denton Record-Chronicle. men certainly weren’t warned. In Nagasaki the occupation forces were more concerned with the hostile natives than anything else. The contingent arrived in Nagasaki Bay on the U.S.S. Applying on Sept. 5, 1945, but didn’t disembark for several days. When they went ashore, men in protective clothing went first. A few hours later, the rest piled into trucks and were driven to what had been a train station. Nothing was left except evidence of melted steel beams and a concrete slab. And dust dust that was radioactive. “We slept in that dust, it was real thick in there,” West recalls. “The next morning a lot of the guys were complaining of headaches. Nobody ate breakfast.” He spent eight months in various parts of Japan before being discharged. His physical on arriving home was routine, and no one asked about problems he might be having because of his stay in Japan. No one gave much thought about having been where the bomb had been dropped. It was more than a decade before West’s health problems started showing up. In 1959, he spent most of a year in a hospital with blood clots in his legs. “I never will forget that year,” he says. “My two kids were going to school with holes in their shoes, but I couldn’t work.” That problem families suffering because men can’t work, is what the National Association of Atomic Veterans would like to change. The group recently began a fund-raising campaign to establish a Texas office. Their goal is to wring full disability payments from the VA for all veterans who were exposed to radiation from atomic bombs. Currently they’re working out of a furniture store in an industrial park in Arlington. A few bills allowing full compensation have been introduced in Congress by Senator Alan Cranston, D-Calif., but the full disability provisions were stripped before final passage. Lewis Levin, the NAAV’s state president, says the members of the organization are bitter at being misled by the government. Levin participated in the “Trinity” nuclear tests and received disability for three months after being discharged. Then it was cut off without a word. “No one that I know of was forewarned [of the radiation dangers]” he said. “We’re the only ones that have never been recognized.” President Reagan did sign a bill proclaiming national atomic veterans day July 16 of this year, but observers point out that the bill-signing ceremony was closed to the press and buried in routine White House announcements. Levin says 38,000 atomic vets have filed claims with the VA. Public Affairs Officer Chuck Lucas, who works in the VA’s benefits division in Washington, said 3,488 claims have been filed. Of those, 29 directly related to atomic testing have been approved. VA policy states that, unless a veteran’s medical condition is clearly caused by something else, it is assumed that radiation is the cause. Getting medical treatment isn’t a problem. But to many veterans, including Jim Strickland of Denton, the real tragedy is that there are men who are so sick they can’t work. Their families are on welfare, and simply keeping the man alive won’t pay the bills. Cong. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, said he’s pleased that the VA is offering medical treatment, but he realizes many men need more than that. “They want disability and I think they ought to be entitled to it,” he said. Strickland, 54, isn’t in that position himself, since he doesn’t have a family. He said he decided he couldn’t take the chance on having children who might be deformed because of the radiation he was exposed to in 1953. “I wouldn’t want to put this kind of burden on my family,” he said. “Other veterans were having deformities in their children and that scared me. I wanted a family just like THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13