Sens. Tina Smith, Thom Tillis Lead Bipartisan Reintroduction of Bill to Support Health Care for “Atomic Veterans”

Senators Smith and Tillis, Congresswoman Meng Reintroduce Bill To Ensure Radiation-Exposed Veterans Who Cleaned Up Nuclear Testing Sites in Marshall Islands Receive Health Benefits

WASHINGTON, D.C. [02/26/19]—Today, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) reintroduced their bipartisan legislation to secure health care benefits for “Atomic Veterans” who were exposed to harmful radiation when they cleaned up nuclear testing sites during the late 1970s.

U.S. Representative Grace Meng (N-NY) reintroduced the House companion bill, and the Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act would allow veterans who participated in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll on the Marshall Islands to receive the same health care and benefits given to other servicemembers who were involved in active nuclear tests. From 1946 to 1958 the U.S. military conducted more than 40 nuclear tests in the Islands, but the thousands of service members who cleaned up the area were never made eligible to receive health benefits under the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act.                                                                                        

“One of our most solemn duties is to take care of the men and women who serve in our armed forces,” said Sen. Smith. “And a big part of that means ensuring they can get the health care they need both during and after their service. The Americans who cleaned up the radiation-exposed Marshall Islands—where more than 40 nuclear tests took place in the 20th century—have been fighting for proper care for a long time, and it’s past time we stand up for them. I’m standing up by continuing to work on this commonsense, bipartisan fix that’s long overdue.”

“In the 1970s, thousands of courageous servicemembers were tasked with the unfathomable mission of cleaning the fallout and debris from nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands without protective gear, causing countless health issues among those involved,” said Senator Tillis. “This bipartisan legislation will recognize those veterans and ensure they are able to receive access to the medical treatment for which their service should have entitled them to long ago.”

“I’m pleased to reintroduce the bipartisan Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act this Congress,” said Rep. Meng. “I want to also thank Senators Smith and Tillis for their leadership on this issue and for introducing the Senate version. This commonsense bill will provide much needed care to the veterans who participated in nuclear cleanup of Enewetak Atoll. These veterans served our nation with honor and distinction. It is long past time that we address the failure of our system to help them; it is simply the right thing to do. This bill is named after my good friend, the late Congressman Mark Takai, who passed away in 2016, and I hope this bill will quickly move through Congress.”

“On behalf of the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV), its members, and all Enewetak Atoll Radiological Cleanup Project personnel, I thank Congresswoman Grace Meng, Senator Tina Smith and Senator Thom Tillis and their respective staff for introducing this responsible, common sense legislation,” said National Association of Atomic Veterans National Commander Keith Kiefer. “I would also like to thank more than eleven veterans organizations and other veteran advocates that support this legislation. The Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Veterans have been denied recognition as Atomic Veterans, as well as being Occupation Exposure Veterans too long. The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act recognizes these veterans as Atomic Veterans, providing the healthcare coverage needed and promised. Despite the fact that the mission was titled ‘Enewetak Atoll Radiological Cleanup Project,’ and the mission was to remediate the islands so the native islanders could safely return to their homeland, and this mission failed, the VA (Veterans Administration) and DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency) in concert deny these veterans ionization radiation exposure status. Despite contamination of the islands with Plutonium, Strontium, Cesium and other toxic materials from years of testing 43 atomic bombs, the veterans did not have proper PPG (Personal Protective Gear) or monitoring during removal and transportation of approximately 110,000 cubic yards contaminated soil, these bureaucracies continue to deny any exposure and proper care associated with that. About 4,000 veterans were part of this project. Of these, we have found about ten percent alive. Most of the survivors have cancer(s); at least one suffers with six unique cancers. These men are in their late 50s to 60s.”

“Each veteran exposed to nuclear radiation deserves equal treatment and equal access to the veteran health benefits they’ve earned,” said Association of Mature American Citizens President Daniel Weber. “For too long, service members who cleaned up the Enewetak Atoll have been neglected by the VA and been forced to pay out of pocket for several radiation-related medical expenses. AMAC’s 1.7 million members are pleased to support Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Representative Grace Meng (D-NY-06) as they seek to ensure every veteran gets the healthcare access they deserve.”

The bipartisan Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act was reintroduced by Sens. Smith and Tillis and is cosponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Angus King (I-Maine), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). It’s named after the late Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai, a veteran of the U.S. Army and Hawaii Army National Guard who passed away in 2016 and was the original sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives.

The service members who participated in the Marshall Islands cleanup between 1977 and 1980 suffer from high rates of cancers due to their exposure to radiation and nuclear waste, but are currently unable to receive the same treatments and service-related disability presumptions that other “radiation-exposed veterans” receive. The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act would tackle this issue by extending key VA benefits to those who helped clean up the Marshall Islands, which remain partly uninhabitable due to high levels of radiation.

You can read a summary of the bill here.