My father, Wesley L. Smith, died for his country. He wasn’t shot or blown up in war — although he was wounded in World War II and was awarded a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for valor. No, when the Korean War broke out, he was called back into active service and sent to the Nevada Atomic Test Sites — where he was exposed to deadly radiation. He also lost his hearing in a test.
Dad died of cancer in 1984. But when Mom applied for survivor’s benefits as Dad asked her to do, she was refused repeatedly. And the VA lied about his service, first saying he was never in Nevada and then — after I proved through documentation and his hearing loss from a bomb blast that he indeed was — they lied about his never having been exposed.
It has been a festering wound in my soul all these years. So last Memorial Day, I wrote about how many “atomic veterans” were cheated and denied the recognition they deserved by the VA for their ultimate sacrifice. (If you want to read the unjust details, hit this link.) I received an outpouring of responses — many quite emotional — from others who had experienced the same shameful denial of just benefits and patriotic recognition.
In writing that piece I did a little research and discovered that there is a little-known program through the Justice Department that provides a tax-free payment to atomic veterans or their survivors as compensation for their sacrifice. I applied, and today I received the benefit. It requires proof of cause of death, exposure to the risks identified in the statute, and relationship to the person who became ill or died from radiation-caused illness.
I write because there are many family members of atomic veterans who are entitled to receive compensation but, like I was, may be unaware of the program. This issue is pressing because — unless renewed by Congress — it expires in July of 2022, only seven months from now! There are bills to renew, but no guarantee that they will pass.
If you are the surviving family member of an atomic veteran who died from cancer, leukemia, or other radiation-related disease, or worked to build these weapons or mined uranium, you may be entitled to a benefit. Here is the link to the statute (see page 4988). There are attorneys and assistance organizations that can help you for a modest contingency fee. I used one, and it greased the skids considerably.
Here is the preamble to the statute that pays tribute to those who protected this country and contracted terminal illness from their service:
‘‘SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE. ‘‘This Act may be cited as the ‘Radiation Exposure Compensation Act’. ‘‘SEC. 2. FINDINGS, PURPOSE, AND APOLOGY. ‘‘(a) FINDINGS.—The Congress finds that— ‘‘(1) fallout emitted during the Government’s atmospheric nuclear tests exposed individuals to radiation that is presumed to have generated an excess of cancers among these individuals; ‘‘(2) the health of the individuals who were exposed to radiation in these tests was put at risk to serve the national security interests of the United States; ‘‘(3) radiation released in underground uranium mines that were providing uranium for the primary use and benefit of the nuclear weapons program of the United States Government exposed miners to large doses of radiation and other airborne hazards in the mine environment that together are presumed to have produced an increased incidence of lung cancer and respiratory diseases among these miners; ‘‘(4) the United States should recognize and assume responsibility for the harm done to these individuals; and ‘‘(5) the Congress recognizes that the lives and health of uranium miners and of individuals who were exposed to radiation were subjected to increased risk of injury and disease to serve the national security interests of the United States. ‘‘
(b) PURPOSE.—It is the purpose of this Act to establish a procedure to make partial restitution to the individuals described in subsection (a) for the burdens they have borne for the Nation as a whole. ‘‘
(c) APOLOGY.—The Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation to the individuals described in subsection (a) and their families for the hardships they have endured.
This doesn’t end the pain of losing my father way before his time, but the country’s recognition of his sacrifice does ease the bitterness. Here’s to you, Dad! Your grateful nation salutes you.