'The Other Side of Memorial Day,' or Dying in Paradise

The politicians look stern. The old veterans preen. The young soldiers wonder why they had to give up a holiday weekend to march with some old guys. In my last blog post, I mentioned Hillary and politicians doing right by the troops when no one is watching. Memorial Day is different; everyone watches. The veterans being celebrated can neither talk back nor cause problems; quiet they are in their tombs. Memorial Day is a holiday to recognize all military who died in the nation's service.

Nearly everyone honors our war dead. They cost little and cannot argue back against the pontifications of the politicians and the war hawks. More ignored are the military dead who died following the wars -- people who could not breathe from World War I trench warfare and gassing or slowly degenerated from the psychic horrors of bombing population centers or liberating death camps.

Far too often, family and loved ones were abandoned to cope with wounded who would never really recover. The numerous naval and air accidents kept piling up a steady toll of dead and damaged families. All these thoughts flood this career officer's mind on Memorial Day. These deaths, most caused by operating at the very edge of known science or the environment, come to mind in May. Not all our dead realized that they were in harm's way. The list of mistakes is long, but an honorable nation must recognize the sacrifices of those who did not even realize they were at risk. Perhaps it is time to discuss when politicians ignore veterans when no one is watching.

Eniwetok Atoll was the site of massive nuclear weapons testing. The islanders who once inhabited the islands were compensated by the U.S. when it realized that fully restoring the islands was impossible. It was here in this tropical paradise that the U.S. military apparently suffered numerous unrecognized casualties. Whether through callousness or oversight, thousands of U.S. servicemen were seemingly sentenced to early death from radiation exposure. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1986:

Shortly before the United States in 1948 began its testing of atomic bombs on Eniwetok atoll in the central Pacific, Ketty Boktok's mother was among the 800 people evacuated to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Over the next decade 43 atomic devices were exploded on Eniwetok.

The radioactive fallout from these tests on Eniwetok--and another 23 on Bikini atoll--made parts of the Marshall Islands uninhabitable, forced the relocation of nearly 2,000 people and disrupted traditional life in the Marshall Islands, a chain of 29 coral atolls and five mountaintop islands scattered over half a million square miles in the Central Pacific, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

The Cold War period was indeed best described by the politics of terror and mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Both sides terrorized each other with the guarantee that they would literally destroy the world. Shortcuts abounded, and the senior military leadership grew accustomed to hiding from responsibility behind a wall of secrecy and denial, and so it was for the Eniwetok Atomic Veterans. Gary Pulis described the assignment in an excellent article in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Rosa Salter Rodriguez: "Picture the most beautiful tropical paradise you've ever seen -- a beautiful lagoon on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, and the sound of waves crashing in. A beautiful place." However, the snake in this particular Eden was radioactivity.

The Pentagon classified the veterans' mission, and the peacetime veterans were eligible for only limited VA benefits. With the coming of the Internet, Mr. Pulis and others began to look for veterans who had served with the clean-up mission. Their results were alarming. Mr. Pulis said, "Out of the 8,033 people sent to clean Enewetak Atoll, after 35 years of searching, we have found only 210 survivors, or 2 to 3 percent."

Hillary Clinton did what was right when no one was looking; it is time to demand that the members of Congress who represent these veterans do what is right for these veterans, because we are looking. We cannot undo what has been done, but we very much should do everything possible to ensure that they are treated in the very best way possible for their service.

Whether we're talking about Iraqi chemical weapons, Agent Orange, or the Atomic Veterans, the American people should demand accountability from the Pentagon and national leadership. People should be considered neither disposable nor riffraff, especially our veterans, who deserve far better from their weak leadership.