All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation on Wednesday sent letters raising concerns and seeking clarity from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs about the veterans who served on Enewetak Atoll between 1977 and early 1980.
The men deployed there — including some from Maine — were tasked with cleaning up the atoll, which had been the site of more than 40 nuclear tests, before it could be returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. Many of them are now connecting the cancers and other illnesses they and their army buddies are suffering with their stint cleaning up radioactive material from the atoll.
“We believe the Department of Veterans Affairs should take a closer look at this issue to determine if the veterans’ exposure to radioactive material during this timeframe in the Enewetak Atoll has, in fact, made them more susceptible to certain diseases, including certain cancers that some of these veterans have and continue to suffer from,” U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin said in a joint letter to Robert McDonald, the secretary of the department.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King wrote to Allison A. Hickey, the under secretary for benefits at the VA, asking her for additional information about the cleanup mission. Their questions included:
— How many Enewetak Atoll veterans have sought a service-connected disability for cancers known to be associated with exposure to radiation?
— To what extent was radiation exposure measured and if unsafe levels of radiation were ever detected in those measurements?
— Were safety precautions taken to protect service members from exposure to radiation throughout the cleanup process?
Jeffery Dean of Belfast served on Enewetak Atoll and is helping to lead the charge to have the veterans who were there designated as “Atomic Veterans.” This status allows veterans who have developed one of several specific cancers or nonmalignant conditions to be eligible for compensation or free medical care through the VA. They do not have to prove their cancers were caused by radiation.
The VA recently responded to a Bangor Daily News query asking why the Enewetak Atoll veterans have not been granted this designation.
“The data accumulated over the three years of the project do not indicate any area or instance of concern over radiological safety. All doses, internal and external were minimal,” VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said in an email.
Dean said Wednesday that the letters from Maine’s congressional delegation members to the VA are a good sign.
“It’s really starting to pick up speed. People are being forced to talk about it and face the issue,” he said. “I hope this just picks up the pace. These [veterans] don’t have another 10, 20 years to wait. They need help now.”