Almost a year ago, I was attempting to organize the endless boxes of research for my book, African Americans Against the Bomb. As I was sifting through documents I rediscovered all of my files on the "atomic veterans." I wondered who else knew about this group's heroic and tragic work and thus decided to write an article discussing their plight. My initial piece explained how the U.S. used these veterans as human guinea pigs to test nuclear weapons. They were exposed to nuclear fallout and many suffered fatal diseases. For years the "atomic veterans" had been calling for respect, recognition, and compensation, with some becoming active in the antinuclear movement. In short, the "atomic veterans" were asking for justice, and with my piece I joined them in their call.
This summer it appeared at least some in Congress heard their collective voice. In May, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced H.R. 4778, the "Atomic Veterans Service Medal Act." The bill would authorize the Department of Defense to award a military service medal to those who were members of the Armed Forces who were exposed to radiation a result of nuclear weapons testing. With bi-partisan support, the bill moved from the House Armed Services Committee to a Subcommittee on Military Personnel. But like many bills in Congress, now it simply waits.
Upon finding out about the bill my initial thought was "it's about time our country does right by these veterans." However, I soon began to think of those "atomic veterans" who had already passed and would never receive their recognition. I thought specifically of one individual.
A few weeks before McGovern introduced the bill, I received a phone call in my office. The woman explained she was a relative of Acie Byrd and he had just died. Byrd, an "atomic veteran," was featured prominently in my original piece I wrote back in January. Following a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific, Byrd lost most light sensation in his eyes from the radiation exposure. Yet, over the years, Byrd managed to keep track of hundreds of victims of the nuclear tests. As founder of the Atomic Veterans Association and leader of the Alliance of Atomic Veterans, Byrd had often been at the forefront of ensuring that the federal government adequately compensated atomic veterans. His relative told me he had read my piece, thanked me, and hoped some day I would write a follow up about his struggle.
Byrd, tragically, was not alone. The reality is that over 75 percent of the "atomic veterans" have died. Many of those who remain are in poor health. Some may only have months. Every day we are bombarded with reports about the dysfunction in Congress. Whether it is worrying about midterm elections or just the routine partisan fighting on Capitol Hill, it is quite clear that little, if anything gets done these days. But the "atomic veterans" do not have another decade to wait for Congress to act.
While the economy, war, and immigration are deeply partisan, this is one issue that is not. For once, Congress can do the right thing and unify under the banner of the "atomic veterans." But time is running out. We constantly hear from both sides of the aisle about how much they care about our veterans. Now they must prove it and pass H.R. 4778.