The following is a compilation of a two-part piece on Atomic Veterans — veterans who were subjected to radiation exposure by government atomic bomb testing — who still, more than six decades on, are fighting the VA and Department of Justice for benefits and official recognition of their service and sacrifice.
ENID, Okla. — Like many young men of the 1950s, Richard Simpson, of Hillsdale, did not hesitate to serve in the military. Now, almost seven decades later, at age 87, Simpson is among a dwindling corps of veterans fighting for recognition of their service as live subjects in atomic testing.
Simpson, who graduated from Kremlin High School in 1951, at the height of the Korean War, said there was no question about whether or not he’d serve. He had three brothers-in-law who served in the Marine Corps in World War II, one of them wounded at Iwo Jima. As soon as he could, he followed in their footsteps and enlisted.
“It was a call to duty,” Simpson said. “You served your country.”
Simpson was assigned to a training command at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and worked his way up to platoon sergeant. He thought he might be deployed to the war in Korea, but the government had different plans for Simpson’s platoon.
“One day they said to have our sea bags packed, but they didn’t tell us where we were going,” Simpson said.
The men ended up in the Nevada desert, at a test site for what would become known as Operation Upshot-Knothole. At the time, the men didn’t know why they were going to the desert.
“They didn’t ever tell us until we were there,” Simpson said. “They didn’t even tell us what we’d be doing.”
Once there, Simpson said they began training daily to hunker down in trenches close to a test tower.
“I’d drive us out there in the desert and we’d practice getting in the trenches,” Simpson said.
Even once the men knew they would be in those trenches as an atomic bomb was detonated from the top of the tower, Simpson said they didn’t question their orders.
“What do you know when you’re a damn kid,” Simpson said. “You didn’t ask questions. You just did what you were told.”
The drills continued, but day to day the men didn’t know if a bomb would be detonated after they got in the trench — until, one day, it did.
“The bomb was about 350 feet in the air and we were about 500 feet away in a trench,” Simpson said. The men were given no protective equipment except ear plugs. Commands broadcast by speakers ordered the men to crouch in the trench and cover their eyes with their hands.
When the bomb detonated, Simpson said “You could see the bones in your hands, and skeletons in front of you.”
“When it went off, it pushed you down like something crushed you,” Simpson said. “It was so bright, it scared the daylights out of you.”
Years later, a doctor told Simpson the image of the blast was burned into the back of his eyes, and for many years he had recurring nightmares of the blast.
After the initial blast, the loudspeakers ordered the men to stand up.
“The sand caved in around us, and then after the blast they said ‘Look up,'” Simpson said.
While looking up into the mushroom cloud, the men were covered in dust from the explosion — dust that burned the skin on contact.
“We all had white dust over us,” Simpson said. “They came around with a Geiger counter that beeped continually.”
After the test, the men were told to shower. Simpson said they had what looked like sunburns under their uniforms. In the days that followed, Simpson said their skin peeled and most of the men began to have growths and patches of dead flesh appear on their bodies.
“A Navy corpsman would come around,” Simpson said, “and when growths would come out on us like little moles, he would take a hot needle and dig those out.”
“Just about every one was affected,” Simpson said, “some a lot worse than me.”
Simpson said one of his corporals, a 17 year-old, had to have both his feet amputated after the flesh died, was scraped away by the corpsman, and was scraped and died again until there was nothing left to save.
Growths were removed on Simpson’s head, arms and hands, and the corpsman had to scrape dying flesh away from a discolored area near his groin every several days for about three months.
Simpson said the scraping and hot needle treatments were excruciating, and the men remained isolated in the desert. When it was time to go back home, he said they all were given papers to sign ordering them to tell no-one about the tests.
Seeing the effects the radiation had on his men, Simpson said he had serious misgivings about why the government had used them for atomic testing.
“They should have known what it would do to a body from Hiroshima,” Simpson said. “We never should have been there.”
Simpson was medically discharged from the Marines in 1954, and came back to Garfield County to farm and drill water wells.
But, the effects of the radiation exposure continued.
“I’d be taking a shower, and I’d think bugs were on me, just stinging me,” Simpson said. “It still happens to me to this day.”
He said the constant burning has been like torture for 65 years.
“If people think waterboarding was bad after 9/11, they should go through 65 years of stinging all over the body,” he said.
Growths continued to appear on Simpson’s arms over the years. Many times, he said he treated himself the way the corpsman had. He’d go out in his shop, “where no-one could hear me holler,” heat up a large needle with a torch and burn the growths out of his flesh.
Cancer later developed in the spot near his groin, and he has had more than 30 cancerous lesions removed on his arms, face, ears and back.
It wasn’t until October, 2017 that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimated the radiological exposure to which Simpson and his men were subjected. It was estimated at 550 rem — a level the National Science Foundation estimates is likely to cause acute illness and/or early death.
Clifford Lewis, 81, of Edmond, said Simpson’s experience is not unique. Lewis serves as the Oklahoma commander for the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV), which estimates 195,000 to 300,000 U.S. troops were subjected to atomic testing between 1945 and 1962.
Lewis, as an Air Force airman in 1962, was in a unit subjected to two high-altitude atomic tests in the Johnston Atoll, between the Marshall Islands and Hawaii.
“They put us on the center of an island, and we had to bend over and put our head between our legs,” Lewis said. “They gave us dark goggles and ear plugs. We knew they were doing something, but we didn’t really know what was going on.”
Lewis has since been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He filed a claim with the VA for benefits, but he said it was denied.
Like Simpson’s platoon, Lewis said he and the men in his unit were “kind of sworn to secrecy.”
Most of the U.S. troops subjected to atomic testing remained under orders of secrecy until then-Defense Secretary William Perry lifted the orders in 1996.
Keith Kiefer, NAAV National Commander, said many atomic veterans still are hesitant to talk about the testing, or may not even know they’re allowed to talk about it.
“These men, up until 1996, could not talk about their experiences or exposure, even with their doctor or immediate family,” Kiefer said. “Many veterans to date don’t know they can talk about their experiences and exposure.”
Even though the operations have been declassified for 22 years, Kiefer said atomic veterans — and in many cases, their widows and children — still are fighting for official recognition of their service.
“These veterans, under normal circumstances, would have received a medal for their service,” Kiefer said. “But, because they couldn’t even talk about what they did, it would be hard to ask the government to issue a medal for it.”
Since 1996, repeated efforts have been made in Congress to include a medal for atomic veterans. None have passed.
Kiefer said a medal won’t change what happened, but it would have a lot of symbolic significance for atomic veterans and their families.
“They want to know the lives, the suffering and contributions made for their country are being recognized and properly awarded recognition,” Kiefer said.
Lewis, the Oklahoma NAAV commander, said a medal now would be too late for many atomic veterans — but still needs to happen.
“A lot of them are dead now, but it would mean a lot to their families and it would mean a lot to me,” Lewis said. “At least show some recognition. At least it would show them the U.S. government recognizes us now, and what we went through.”
Atomic vets: The fight for disability benefits
In the 65 years since Richard Simpson, of Hillsdale, was used as a live subject in atomic bomb testing, he’s never shared his story publicly. He’s breaking his silence now to help other veterans who are fighting for benefits to fight cancer and other illnesses tied to radiation exposure.
“There’s one reason I’m doing this,” Simpson said. “There were a lot of veterans that were involved in these atomic tests that died early, and the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) hasn’t helped us.”
Simpson is one of 195,000 to 300,000 U.S. troops who were subjected to atomic testing between 1945 and 1962, according to the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV).
Since participating in an atomic bomb test in 1953, Simpson has had more than 30 cancerous lesions removed from his body. For more on Simpson, read the accompanying story “Decades later, Atomic Veterans still fighting for recognition.”
Simpson now has access to VA benefits and a small monthly pension. But, it took more than six decades to get there, and he worries many other atomic veterans aren’t receiving the help they need.
When Simpson was discharged from the Marines in 1954, he said the Navy doctor who out-processed him “said the VA would take care of us.”
He went to the VA hospital in Oklahoma City after his discharge. “They said they would contact me,” Simpson said.
That contact never came, he said. Nor did any medical benefits. Repeated calls yielded no further action. Finally, Simpson said he went as high as he could.
“I called the White House hotline for the VA,” he said, “and they just said to fill out more requests.”
In 1979, 25 years after Simpson was discharged, he said the VA called him to come in for an evaluation. But, that visit yielded only a familiar response: “They said they would call me.”
It was 2016 — another 37 years — before the VA followed up on his request for medical help.
“I called them back and asked them why it took them 63 years to follow up on my request,” Simpson said.
Simpson said his luck with the VA changed when he enlisted the help of Linda Turner, a veteran herself and veterans service representative with the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.
Turner helps local veterans navigate the paperwork of disability claims and appeals. With her help, Simpson was scheduled a new review with a VA-contracted doctor in Oklahoma City.
“He looked at my head, arms and face,” Simpson said. “He didn’t want to look at my groin or back where cancers had been cut out.”
After waiting more than six decades, Simpson said the medical review process was brief.
“It took about seven minutes for that doctor to determine what to tell the VA,” Simpsons said, “who determined my disability of 40 percent.”
Simpson said he’s grateful for Turner’s help, the medical coverage and small pension that comes with it. But, that doesn’t undo having to wait almost 65 years for answers, he said.
“If I’ve been that way for 65 years, why did it take them that long to figure it out,” he said, “and why should I not get back-paid until 1953 when it happened?”
Keith Kiefer, NAAV National Commander, said Simpson’s experience with fighting and waiting for benefits is not unique.
There are two processes through which atomic veterans can apply for disability compensation related to illnesses caused by radiation exposure.
They can apply for a VA disability rating, like Simpson. Or, they can apply for a one-time $75,000 payment through the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), managed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
Kiefer said regulations prevent veterans from “double-dipping,” meaning they typically only receive benefits from the VA or DOJ — not both.
But, not all veterans who were exposed to radiation in the military, and who now suffer cancer, autoimmune diseases and other illnesses, are guaranteed to receive benefits.
Kiefer knows this from experience. In 1978 he was an airman in a group of about 4,000 men who, between 1977 and 1980, were sent to the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands to clean up radiological fallout from atomic testing.
The U.S. detonated 67 bombs in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. Kiefer’s unit was part of the effort to collect 110,000 cubic yards of radioactive material and encase it under an 18-inch-thick concrete dome on Runit Island.
Kiefer said the men worked without protective equipment, and no tests were done before they deployed, or after, to determine any radiation exposure.
“It was one of the worst planned operations,” Kiefer said, “or maybe the best planned operation for plausible deniability.”
The government still does not recognize members of the Enewetak cleanup as atomic veterans, and they are not eligible for RECA or VA disability benefits.
But, for Kiefer, there’s no doubt he and his fellow troops at Enewetak were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
Even though he was “young and naive and trusted the government,” Kiefer said he had a doctor conduct a fertility test on him before he left for the Marshall Islands. It was normal. When he returned he had the test redone, and he was infertile.
He suffered deep muscle and bone aches and unexplained recurring fevers in the months after the cleanup operation, and he now suffers a thyroid condition, blood clotting disorder and neuropathy — all known to be associated with radiation exposure.
But, because the government doesn’t recognize their exposure at Enewetak, Kiefer said he’s still paying out-of-pocket for medical care at his local VA hospital.
Kiefer said he’s still glad he served, but he feels lied to and cheated.
“I’m very disappointed at the lack of integrity,” Kiefer said. “If it was safe, why did we spend three years scraping the soil off many of the islands? That just defies logic.”
To date, Runit Island remains uninhabitable, and the dome containing the radioactive waste is leaking, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We were working there 24/7 for three years to clean that up, yet the government claims we weren’t exposed to anything,” Kiefer said. “I have been very disappointed in the denial of the government of what happened there, what we were exposed to and not caring for the veterans.”
A bill to expand RECA coverage to Enewetak cleanup crews has been stuck in committee in Congress since last session. Kiefer remains hopeful Congress will act and expand RECA coverage, but he said it will be too late for many with whom he served.
“We’re losing them at a rate of two to three every two months,” Kiefer said, “and most of them are dying of cancers and other radiological-related diseases.”
While Kiefer still receives no disability benefits from his service, he works through NAAV to gain benefits for others, like Simpson, who are eligible.
Many of those veterans wait decades for a final determination, especially if they have to appeal an initial decision, Kiefer said.
“I know many veterans who have fought the VA for 10-14 years before they were successful at that,” Kiefer said. “That is why many men have come up with the statement that the VA motto is ‘delay and deny until they die.’”
Bobbi Gruner, deputy director of public affairs for the VA Continental South region, said VA has been working to improve both claims and appeals times.
“VA’s claims backlog reached its peak of 611,000 in March 2013,” Gruner wrote in an email to the News & Eagle. “Since then, the department has made enormous improvements in claims processing speed and efficiency. VA now processes the average veteran’s claim in 100.5 days, and the current claims backlog is at a near-historic low of approximately 83,665.”
Gruner acknowledged the appeals process had, “for years … been complex, inefficient and difficult to navigate for veterans.”
She said the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, signed into law in August, “overhauls and modernizes our claims appeals process and thereby provides better and faster decisions for veterans.”
The effects of that bill are yet to be seen. And bills to expand RECA and recognize atomic veterans with an Atomic Veteran Service Medal remain stuck in committee in Congress.
For more information on atomic veterans visit the National Association of Atomic Veterans.
The following photos were taken in Nevada, near the time of the Operation Upshot-Knothole atomic bomb test to which Richard Simpson and his fellow Marines were subjected in 1953.