Congress is considering a bill that would create a special "atomic veteran" designation for the men and women who worked to clean up nuclear waste from a South Pacific atoll nearly 40 years ago, a move that Maine veteran Paul Laird says was a long time coming.
But Laird, a 59-year-old from Otisfield who served with the U.S. Army's 84th Engineer Battalion on Enewetak Atoll and who is a three-time cancer survivor, said that the bill has only a slim chance of becoming law -- and that is not acceptable to him. As of now, only 30 co-sponsors have officially signed on to the bill, which is a number the Mainer said does not seem like enough.
"We are not seeing people jump up and down to get on board," he said earlier this month. "We're a little disappointed. We're trying however we can to get the word out, but people just don't seem to think it's very important."
The bill, H.R. 3870, is called the Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, and was introduced last November by US Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii. It was referred to the House subcommittee on health on Nov. 6 and has not advanced any farther on its legislative path. The website GovTrack.us, which follows Congress, only gave the bill a 5 percent chance of getting out of committee and a 1 percent chance of being enacted into law.
Veterans such as Laird and Jeffery Dean of Belfast want to be designated as so-called atomic veterans so that if they are diagnosed with one of several specific cancers or nonmalignant conditions they can be entitled to compensation or free medical care through the US Department of Veterans Affairs. With this designation, they would not have to prove their cancers were caused by radiation and would likely have an easier time getting a disability rating from the VA.
Laird and Dean were among approximately 6,000 American soldiers tasked with rehabilitating the atoll between 1977 and 1980 before it was returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. The tiny island was the scene of more than 40 nuclear tests from 1948 to 1958, and when the two Mainers were among those told to clean it up with little protective gear, they believe they became contaminated with radioactive dust.
"The stuff was like baby powder," Laird said of the contaminated soil he moved with a bulldozer and bucket loader. "When you dumped it in the back of the truck it would just go poof. The first weeks I was there I begged for a dust mask. They said they were on back order and just wrap your T-shirt around your nose."
He said that he is in communication with 340 known surviving veterans from Enewetak Atoll, and of the 340, there is a 35 percent cancer rate.
"We have many guys that have already died. We have lots more with a foot in the grave," Laird said. "I've had three different forms of cancer, which is very, very rare. I was in good shape my whole life, then all of a sudden, it was like someone flipped the switch. That's what radiation does."
Dean, another cancer survivor, said last year that it is past time for the veterans to get the designation and health care they need.
"We're all suffering the consequences," he said. "Vets are dying with no mystery to it."
Although the VA could on its own grant what the Enewetak Atoll veterans are asking, so far the agency has not indicated there is a lot of interest in doing that. Last year, a VA spokesperson told the BDN that the agency does not have any data indicating veterans should be concerned over radiological safety and that radiation exposures were "as low as reasonably achievable."
Members of Maine's congressional delegation reached on Wednesday said that they believe the veterans should be helped. US Rep. Chellie Pingree has signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor and will be added to the official list of co-sponsors when Congress goes back into session next month, according to Willy Ritch, her spokesman.
On Wednesday, Ritch said it is impossible to predict the passage of legislation.
"There are issues like this that should not be controversial and that can sometimes be attached to other bills that are going through," he said. "A bill doesn't always go through a regular legislative process. It could be added to something else ... You just keep looking for chances to fix the policy. After having served and sacrificed, [these veterans] shouldn't have to be fighting the VA."
US Rep. Bruce Poliquin said on Wednesday that he has made it a priority to help ensure that veterans are fully supported in every capacity.
"In addition to sending a letter to the VA on this matter, Congressman Poliquin is examining all legislation to make sure our veterans are provided the support that they have earned and deserve," the statement from his office read.
US Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King issued a joint statement Wednesday, saying they planned to look closely at the proposed House legislation.
"Our veterans have served our nation with honor and distinction, and if they suffer from illnesses resulting from their work in the line of duty, then they deserve support, resources and high quality health care from the VA," they said in the statement.