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Ill veterans who had radiation exposure now caught in bureaucratic web

Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Veterans suffering from cancers linked to exposure to radiation from atomic test explosions encounter a complex and error-ridden process that routinely denies them disability benefits, a University of Illinois scholar says.

Soldiers, aviators and sailors who took part in U.S. nuclear tests between 1946 and 1962 or were exposed to radiation during the occupation of Japan after World War II must do battle with “a system that is not working,” Melinda F. Podgor writes in the Elder Law Journal published by the U. of I. College of Law.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs’ disability compensation system prevents the vast majority of atomic veterans from obtaining benefits for their radiation-induced diseases. As a result, many atomic veterans are unable to receive necessary medical treatment or to provide for their basis needs,” Podgor, an editor at the journal, wrote.

The VA’s system is so backlogged with claims that sick elderly veterans sometimes must wait for years for their cases to be decided. At the same time, the medical uncertainties about the relationship between radiation exposure and various cancers make it nearly impossible for veterans to establish disability claims under the current laws.

“As of October 2004, roughly 18,275 atomic veterans applied for disability compensation, but only 1,875 of these claims were granted,” Podgor wrote. “Thus, nearly 90 percent of atomic veterans have been denied disability compensation.”

The question of how to compensate atomic veterans has persisted for more than 20 years. The number of veterans has dwindled as the debate continues. For example, Navy veteran Norm Duncan was assigned to Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945 and spent three months cleaning debris and burying bodies. He later contracted stomach and lung cancer.

Trying to get his case decided by the VA was an exercise in frustration. Because his official military personnel file was destroyed in a 1973 fire, Duncan presented his discharge papers to the VA in 1998.

Three years later, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which reviews radiation claims for the VA, found Duncan’s name on a list of people who had served in the 31st Naval Construction Battalion at Nagasaki. It also found records that he saw a doctor for fever, chest pains and coughing up blood. A year after the government found his records, while his claim was still being processed, Duncan died.

In 1988, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act requiring the VA to pay disability benefits to atomic veterans with certain types of cancer, including leukemia, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, and cancer of the esophagus, colon and pancreas.

But to qualify for benefits, a veteran must prove that he was present in certain listed locations during listed time periods. This has proven to be difficult in part because of the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which destroyed about 17 million Official Military Personnel Files.

The lost records included those of all U.S. Army officers and enlistees discharged between 1912 and 1959, and U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force personnel discharged after World War II until as late as 1964.

If a veteran does not have one of the listed cancers, he must prove that he was exposed to a level of radiation that could cause cancer. A 2003 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which made the estimates of radiation levels, grossly underestimated the probable levels of radiation.

Moreover, by ignoring veterans’ statements about their assignments in the military, “the VA made inaccurate assumptions about veterans’ locations during exposure and their duration of exposure,” Podgor wrote.

The National Academy of Sciences called on the VA to develop quality assurance programs, apply data more consistently and allow veterans to review “dose estimations” before their reports are forwarded up the chain of review at the agency.

Podgor goes further in her article. To reduce the fallout from poor administrative procedures, she recommends that the VA implement an intensive training program for counselors and claims adjudicators. Increased funding should be directed to the VA, and rather than trying to reduce the staff that handles veterans claims, the Bush administration should cut the overall case backlog, which amounted to 500,000 claims for benefits at the end of 2004. (The claims comprise those made by all veterans, including those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

In light of the 1973 fire that destroyed veteran records, Congress should amend the law to presume that veterans with claims were present at the required locations, with grounds for rebuttal by the VA.

Finally, according to the Illinois scholar, the federal courts should allow to proceed a class-action suit alleging that government officials concealed medical records detailing radiation exposure suffered by servicemen between 1946 and 1951.

According to the suit filed by 10 atomic veterans and others, a special government repository was established in August 1951 by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project to keep records of military personnel participating in atomic weapons testing secret. The government has yet to publicly admit that this information exists.

In 1963, the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space and under water, but permitted nuclear explosions underground.

Altogether, about 210,000 Americans, most of them servicemen, participated in atmospheric nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1962 in the U.S. and over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In addition, about 195,000 servicemen were stationed in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where nuclear bombs were dropped in 1945, as part of the post-war occupation of Japan.

Podgor’s article is titled, “The Inability of World War II Atomic Veterans to Obtain Disability Benefits: Time Is Running Out on Our Chance to Fix the System.”