5. Ex-servicemen Fighting a Critical Battle

Chapter 3: The Central, South Pacific and Australia
Part 4: Britain’s Forgotten Legacy

On December 1988, in a verdict handed down by the New South Wales Supreme Court, it was declared that compensation should be paid by the government to former army personnel who took part in nuclear tests. The plaintiff was Richard Johnston, chairman of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association. The amount awarded was A$867,000. It was a landmark case: the first compensation awarded to an ex-serviceman in Australia for illnesses caused by exposure to radiation. However, for Johnston, it was a hollow victory.

The verdict recognized that Johnston suffered from a radiation-linked illness, but Johnston was still not satisfied. The compensation had not been awarded for his skin cancer or high blood pressure but for his schizophrenia which had been induced by the government's lack of response to his fears about radiation exposure. While in the army, Johnston was based at Maralinga for a year, during which he witnessed four tests.

"I was five miles away from the center of the explosion, but sometimes the ashes fell on my bare arms and made my skin tingle," Johnston told us. His job was to go into the test area after each explosion to collect the tanks and other vehicles that had been placed there to measure the effects of the bomb, and to take them back to base. Another task was to bring back the cages of the goats, rabbits, and pigeons placed in the area for experimental purposes.

"The heat just kills you out there at the base," he said. "I used to take off my mask, then undo the protective clothing, then when I couldn't stand it any more I'd take off my gloves."

Afterward he would be overwhelmed by nausea and diarrhea. Johnston himself thought that these were the symptoms of acute radiation sickness, but the army doctor dismissed his fears, saying that his condition was caused by nerves. Continuing to insist that exposure to radiation was the cause of his condition, Johnston was discharged from the army. When he demanded compensation from the government he was accused of lying which caused his mental health to deteriorate until he was finally diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

In 1972, Johnston's doctor saw a documentary about the tests which made him more sympathetic to the ex-serviceman's plight. "That was when I at last got some decent treatment, but even so the government's attitude left a lot to be desired."

He was reluctant to talk about the matter any further, but it was clear that the government's attitude had motivated him to go to court again. Apart from the fact that only part of his claim had been recognized, there was another reason why Johnston was not completely satisfied with the judge's decision. Lawyers' fees for the case had come to A$630,000, and, in addition, he was forced to pay back the government A$260,000 in medical expenses.

"Well," he said, more for his own benefit than ours, "despite the monetary loss, I still beat the government. They can't take that away from me."

Seven hundred of the fifteen thousand Australian servicemen who took part in British nuclear tests formed the Nuclear Veterans Association in 1980, and since then they have continued to demand compensation from the government. The government, however, insists that it has no records of radiation sickness among servicemen, and refuses to acknowledge the adverse effects of nuclear testing. At the present time, fifty ex-servicemen are involved in court cases similar to Johnston's, fighting what may turn out to be the most critical battle of their lives.