Disability benefits for "atomic veterans" in the U.S.

by Yumi Kanazaki, Staff Writer (Tokyo Bureau)

Originally published in the Chugoku Shimbun on May 20, 2007

In the United States, there is a law which stipulates that, with certain conditions met, disability compensation shall be paid to American veterans who served in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings and later developed cancer, regardless of their estimated level of exposure to radiation. If their cancer is among the 21 designated types, they automatically become eligible to receive this benefit. This article will contrast the law in the United States with Japan’s A-bomb certification system for survivors that rigidly requires a demonstrated connection to radiation exposure.

The Radiation-Exposed Veterans Compensation (REVC) Act, established by the United States government in 1988, assumes that the number of atomic veterans who served in the U.S. armed forces in Hiroshima and Nagasaki totals 195,000, including: 1) soldiers who entered the area within 10 miles (approximately 16 kilometers) from the city center and 2) POWs.

Applications are received at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. If veterans are diagnosed as having one of the 21 designated types of cancer, such as stomach cancer or thyroid cancer, they automatically become eligible for compensation under the reasoning that “the diseases are assumed to have relevance to their military service.” The monthly payment is somewhere between $100 and $2,400 (about 12,000 and 288,000), depending on the degree of disability. There are also additional allowances available for nursing care and dependant family members. Moreover, a waiver system is applied to out-of-pocket medical expenses.

This act also covers the participants of atmospheric nuclear tests that had been conducted between 1946 and 1963 before the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water was signed by the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R. Approximately 200,000 people took part in nuclear tests during this period in the South Pacific and the U.S. mainland.

Prior to the passage of the REVC Act, the Veterans’ Dioxin/Radiation Exposure Compensation Standards (VDRECS) was devised in 1984, with the aim of aiding veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam or radiation. In the case of atomic veterans, however, the VDRECS required demonstration of a causal link between disease and radiation exposure, and this prevented many veterans from receiving compensation.

The husband of Alice Brody, 83, of Orange County, California, entered Nagasaki on September 23, 1945, as a pilot in the Marine Corps. Later, he took part in a cleanup of radioactive contamination on a navy vessel which had been involved in a nuclear test in the South Pacific. And, as a commanding officer, he participated in a nuclear test on the U.S. mainland in 1953.

In 1977, her husband developed malignant lymphoma and applied for disability compensation, but his claim was denied. He died soon after that at the age of 57.

“My husband was exposed to radiation three times,” Mrs. Brody explained, “but the government rejected his application, contending that the level of radiation he was exposed to was minimal. Until the new law was enacted, I regularly went to Capitol Hill to appeal to the congressmen from California for a change in policy.” In 1979, Mrs. Brody joined the National Association of Atomic Veterans and devoted herself to lobbying for veterans’ rights in the political arena.

In 1988, when the REVC Act went into effect, her husband's application was posthumously approved. As a bereaved family member, Mrs. Brody now receives half of the compensation due her husband.

In Japan, the Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines certified A-bomb survivors as those who entered areas within two kilometers of the hypocenter in Hiroshima or Nagasaki within a period of two weeks after the atomic bombings. However, proving the cause-and-effect relationship between disease and radiation exposure has been a large hurdle for survivors seeking official recognition as sufferers of atomic bomb-related disease. In contrast, the system of compensation in the United States appears more progressive, yet this system still naturally has its own concerns.

If U.S. veterans apply for disability compensation for cancers other than the 21 types designated under the REVC Act, their applications are reviewed in accordance with the older VDRECS, not the REVC Act. In this case, like in Japan, the causal relationship between disease and radiation exposure is examined in line with the estimated dose of radiation as well as related documents, including records of the applicant’s medical history.

Charlie Clark, 80, of Oahu, Hawaii, arrived on Nagasaki from Iwo Jima on September 23, 1945, as a crew member of a Navy troop carrier. He was 18 years old at the time. “I went into the city without any protection,” he recalls. “I washed my face and bathed in a river there.” In his 30s, he lost his teeth one after another and developed skin cancer, not one of the 21 designated types of cancer included in the provision for compensation. This skin cancer was found and removed from about 170 places on his body.

Mr. Clark remarked angrily, “My face is full of scars. I lost my nose. I applied for compensation in 1995, but my application was denied. I was told that skin cancer suffered by Hiroshima or Nagasaki veterans is not considered a disease caused by military service.”

Melinda Podgor, a lawyer familiar with disability compensation issues for veterans, reports that a total of 18,275 applications were submitted from atomic veterans up through 2004, but only 1,875 were approved. She says, “Judging applications based on levels of radiation exposure, when the veterans of Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t even carry film badges to measure that radiation exposure, is just heartless.”

Atomic veterans and bereaved family members, such as Mrs. Brody, filed lawsuits against the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Energy to claim compensation. They argued that the government should be held responsible for putting soldiers at risk of radiation exposure and not providing sufficient relief measures, but the plaintiffs lost every case.

Douglas Rosinski, an attorney for the plaintiffs and a radiology expert, explains, “The U.S. government hid the records on radiation danger for fear of a backlash from soldiers after World War II. Furthermore, they have neglected their responsibility to provide medical records that veterans have requested in order to apply for disability compensation. The fact that the records on nuclear tests are confidential has also prevented veterans from obtaining necessary evidence.”

In 1972, a fire at the Department of Veterans Affairs burned down the facility and most of the veterans’ records were destroyed. Due to this disaster, there are now many cases where veterans cannot prove that they indeed served in the forces that occupied Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, a reduction in the workforce at this bureau is apparently exacerbating the slow pace of reviewing applications. And it is believed, as well, that due to the increase in disabled soldiers returning from Iraq in the last few years, cases involving atomic veterans have become a lower priority.

Mr. Clark is now lobbying Congress to enact a law which would remove the screening requirement that involves the level of radiation exposure. He says, “I have been fighting to have our government acknowledge the true damage caused by radiation. And I’m afraid we don’t have much time left.” It seems that less than 20,000 of the approximately 400,000 atomic veterans are still alive today. The urgency to expand the scope of relief measures for those still suffering from radiation exposure is a task shared by both Japan and the United States.


Disability compensation for U.S. veterans

If soldiers fall ill or are injured in connection with their military service while on active duty, they are eligible to receive disability compensation by applying at regional offices of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Applications that are denied can be appealed at successively higher levels within the government.

The 21 types of cancer covered by the REVC Act are: cancer of the thyroid, breast, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gall bladder, liver, salivary gland, urinary tact, bone, brain, colon, lung, and ovary, leukemia (except a chronic type), multiple myeloma, malignant lymphoma, and bronchio-alveolar carcinoma. When the REVC Act was enacted in 1988, the number of types of cancer that were covered regardless of the level of the estimated radiation dose was 13. This number ultimately increased due to pressure from atomic veterans.