Out in the beautiful Pacific Ocean lies a circular chain of islands, resplendent with white sands, lapping waves and coconut palms.
However, a giant concrete dome rises from one of the islands, like the remote hideout of a nefarious mastermind in a comic book series, complete with a radioactive lagoon.
Welcome to Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a dirty secret of the US military that has led to the death and suffering of countless veterans who served there.
From 1948-1958, 43 nuclear tests were conducted on Enewetak, essentially nuking the island into an irradiated wasteland that looks deceptively serene.
However, US Army and Air Force personnel in the 1970s were tasked with disposing of the radioactive waste by burying it in the dome, resulting in countless men being exposed to radiation. Something that the head of the Red Cross in the Marshall Islands, Jack Niedenthal, refers to as the monument to “America’s biggest f**k up.” He has spent thirty years in the country fighting for Washington to recognize the impact the radiation has had on the people of the Mashall Islands -which will take 240,000 years to be gone.
“Invisible bullets entered our bodies, and we carry them with us daily,” says Paul Laird, a three-time cancer survivor who operated a bulldozer on Enewetak for the 84th Engineer Battalion in 1977.
“We were told to do a job. You either did the job or you faced Leavenworth (federal prison).”
Since the cleanup operation (which included building the aforementioned concrete dome to contain nuclear waste), almost 2/3 Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project Facebook group have had sicknesses that could be related to radiation exposure, with several members losing their lives.
To make matters worse, many of the men affected can’t get medical treatment for the conditions, as they are not considered “atomic” veterans (the servicemembers who partook in nuclear testing).
Paul Griego, who worked at Enewetak as a civilian contractor in 1978, says he believes that a large number (estimated to be around 4,000) of the approximately 6,000 personnel who participated in the cleanup are dead.
“After four years of searching on the Internet, we have found only 323 survivors,” he told the American Legion in 2016. “The government has Social Security numbers for every one of us who served there. Under normal mortality rates, there should be about 5,300 of us still alive. But the government doesn’t want to tell us how many are still here.”
Despite being issued impractical radiation suits (made of cotton), the men often had to discard them in order to accomplish the mission in the 100+ degree tropical heat.
“If we stayed in those suits, there is no way we could have met their deadlines,” says retired Major Harold Rumzek, who served as the Air Force element commander on the atoll in 1977. “We didn’t have enough suits to use anyway.”
For Enewetak veteran Dr. Morley Safer, the entire incident -from cleanup plans to the failure to treat the nuclear wasteland boys of Enewetak- is nothing more than a string of grave injustices.
“Like everyone else, I was stupid enough to believe they would take care of us. We trusted them (the government). I wouldn’t send anybody to any place I wouldn’t go,” he said. “If there’s no radiation, then why did we spend two and a half years pouring concrete into a mountain?”
While bills have been proposed in the past in terms of helping the veterans, none have made it through state or federal legislature.
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