In February 1978, James Androl had just over six months left in his stint with the U.S. Army when he was ordered to travel from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to a tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
As an E-4 communications specialist, Androl’s mission was to make sure telephone lines and radio systems were operational and secured in the remote outpost. The Marshall Islands were under U.S. territorial control at the time, part of a United Nations mandate following the capture of the islands from Imperial Japan during World War II.
The assignment took Androl to a place where he and others may have been exposed to physical dangers without proper warning or protection from superiors.
“I was attached to the 84th Engineer Battalion, and they told me I was going to a tropical paradise,” recalled Androl, now 60 and living in Las Vegas. “But when I got to Enewetak, they told me that it was radioactive.”
From 1946 to 1958, 67 nuclear weapons were detonated in the Marshall Islands. Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll took the brunt of the damage, including evaporation of entire islands, long-term contamination of the soil and the forced evacuation of the Marshallese who lived there.
Bikini and Enewetak cancer rates among many islanders are far higher than elsewhere. The U.S. government paid the survivors about $270 million for injuries and property damage, although it’s estimated that adequate compensation would exceed $2 billion.
Military veterans like Androl, however, who were assigned to Enewetak to support the cleanup of the islands, received no additional compensation from the U.S. government.
As many as 8,000 Americans may have been exposed to radiation during the cleanup from 1977 to 1980. While they were issued personal film badges and dosimeters to monitor cumulative radiation doses from ionized radiation, Androl said the detectors were often faulty — for example, when exposed to the moisture and humidity that is typical in the tropics.
The service members (mostly Army along with some Air Force and Navy) were also not issued protective body suits. Because of the weather, they typically wore only boots and socks, hats, shorts and T-shirts or no shirts at all. And yet, many of them shoveled contaminated soil that was deposited into a large concrete crater later capped by an 18-inch-thick concrete dome.
“We did not really know the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so we didn’t know much about radiation,” said Androl. “We were young, and we believed our government.”
Many of the veterans later reported having cancer, including Androl, who said he was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer in his mid-50s. Doctors removed a tumor weighing more than 7 pounds and Androl was treated with chemotherapy.
A group calling itself the Atomic Cleanup Vets has organized and pushed for redress. But thus far the government has done little for the veterans, beyond the care they are eligible for through the Veterans Administration.
That may be changing.
In November, legislation spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, a Hawaii Democrat and a veteran himself, was introduced to help the Enewetak survivors.
The Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act calls for extending an existing law that elevated the status of care for “atomic veterans” — those who helped clean up nuclear sites in Japan and the Marshalls in the 1940s and ’50s — to include service members who participated in cleanup operations on Enewetak.
Takai’s office estimates that Enewetak cleanup veterans have a 35 percent cancer rate and are found across the U.S., including in Hawaii.
The congressman now has 11 co-sponsors for his bill in the House, including several Republicans, and his office said he hopes to bolster support for the bill in the session that opened this week. Takai is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and the legislation could either receive its own hearing or be an amendment to a defense or VA appropriations package.
Takai’s colleague and fellow Democrat and veteran Tulsi Gabbard is expected to sign on to the legislation soon. Hawaii U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono — two Democrats who have also long supported veterans issues — have expressed interest in the legislation.
The federal effort will be supported by veterans groups like the Atomic Cleanup Vets, who will lobby their respective delegations, as well as by organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has chapters across the country.
Androl said he is gratified by Takai’s support, having up to now received little sympathy from his Nevada delegation and other officials.
“It’s wonderful that someone has finally stepped forward and agreed to help us,” said Androl.
Following the multi-million-dollar cleanup effort, Enewetak Island, the largest in the atoll, was declared safe for habitation in 1980. But Runit Island on the eastern side of the atoll, where a huge concrete dome covers a 33-foot-deep bomb crater that contains radioactive soil and debris, is uninhabitable.
The crater is called the Runit Dome, for the island in Enewetak Atoll that it is located on, and is also known as the Cactus Dome, named for a 1958 U.S. nuclear test on Runit. But one recent news report said locals on Enewetak have another name for it: the Tomb.
It cost more than $200 million to construct and looks like a large flying saucer or a covered sports stadium. It’s so large — 30 feet deep and 350 feet wide — that it is almost the width of Runit island itself.
YouTube video from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on constructing the Cactus Dome:
Floyd Takeuchi, a longtime Hawaii journalist, covered the relocation of Bikini islanders in the 1970s and later reported from Enewetak for The Honolulu Advertiser.
“It was bizarre, to put it mildly,” he recalled about his 45-minute experience on the dome, which he described as being about the size of three football fields.
Takeuchi and other journalists were told that as long as they stayed on top of the dome, they would be safe. But they were advised not to walk on the sand around the dome, which an Army public affairs officer told them was radioactive.
Not long after, Takeuchi recalled watching Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” reporting from on top of the dome. But Safer was wearing a hazmat suit, appropriate protection given that the half-life of the material in the dome is expected to last 25,000 years.
Takeuchi also remembered a press release issued from the public affairs office at Schofield Barracks that called the construction of the dome “a monument to America’s concern for humanity.”
“I asked a vice admiral, the head guy at the time, if that was really the position of the military, and he said he was very unhappy with the wording but that the public affairs guys got ahead of things.”
Military propoganda about the cleanup of Enewetak seems evident in a 13-minute video made by the a U.S. nuclear agency that was posted on YouTube last year. Produced in 1976, the narration begins with a countdown and ends with boats on a placid lagoon at sunset, accompanied by a steel guitar soundtrack that evokes South Pacific splendor.
But the video also shows the extent of the cleanup work that would be required, warns of “high concentrations of radioactivity” and states that some islands would be inhabitable afterwards. As well, there would be “certain restrictions” placed “on types and locations of crops and gathered foods.”
In the comments section that follows the video, Gary Pulis commented two months ago:
“I hope you folks do not believe all that is said in this about the contamination. I was a member of the 8,033 Army, Navy and Air Force guys sent to clean up this mess between 1977 and 1980. As of today (Nov. 3, 2015) only 239 men from that 8,033 survive. The rest have died of cancers and respiratory illnesses related to our exposure. The US government continues to refuse us any sort of medical help claiming we were not in danger.”
On the Atomic Cleanup Vets website, Pulis is identified as an Army E-4 specialist that operated heavy equipment as part of the 84th Engineer Battalion. He spent six months at Enewetak in 1979.
“Since returning, I have remained fairly healthy until I was 35 years old,” Pulis states on the website. “That is when I had my first ‘cardiac event’ (showing all the signs of a heart attack but no damage detected). At 44 years old, I had a 2nd with the same results. Over the last 10 years, I have been diagnosed with an Unstable Angina, Heart Murmur, Type II Diabetes and just 2 years ago, I had a massive Asthma Attack (having never had asthma before). I have also had (and continue to have) skin issues (that doctors can not explain) and general aches and pains in most of my joints. Since finding others that were on the Atoll, all the pieces are coming together. All these ailments could be related to my exposure to radiation.”
Pulis said on the post that the VA denied him health assistance.
YouTube video from the U.S. Department of Energy on cleaning up Enewetak:
A spokesman for the Honolulu VA Regional Benefits Office at Tripler Army Medical Center, citing privacy rules, said the agency could not comment on specific cases.
But, by law, some of the veterans may be eligible for care under certain criteria, including this: “Other radiation risk activities, where occupational exposure is based on the Veteran’s military occupational specialty or may result from the Veteran having performed duty in an area involving exposure to ionizing radiation.”
(Information about atomic veterans eligibility from the VA is provided at the end of this article.)
Still, veterans like Androl say it can be difficult to navigate all the requirements, especially proving that they were exposed while on the job.
Recent reports underscore that the dome and its surroundings on Enewetak remain dangerous.
For example, The Guardian reported in July that the dome, which holds 111,000 cubic yards of debris, is leaking. It also cites the World Health Organization, which said the dome was designed as a temporary fix — “a way to store contaminated material until a permanent decontamination plan was devised.”
In another report last year, by Public Radio International, visitors were monitored by the U.S. Department of Energy to determine if they were exposed to any radiation. The monitoring included urine tests. The DOE also provided face masks to “protect from the inhalation of irradiated dust particles” while a Geiger counter “would monitor for dangerous levels of radiation.”
Asked about the the “atomic veterans,” Thomas Armbruster, the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said via email, “I am aware of the group. I don’t have a comment on their campaign but here are a couple of things you can use if you like on Runit and the Nuclear Legacy.”
Armbruster passed along photos and information from an August 2015 trip made to Runit Dome, posted on the Facebook page for the U.S. embassy in Majuro, the capital of the Marshalls. The photos show personnel on and around the dome, apparently unprotected.
The information included a brief assessment to Dr. Terry Hamilton of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“DOE continues to monitor Runit Dome, and has stated that cracks on the Dome’s surface, though superficial, will be addressed,” the post explains. “Monitoring of the lagoon will also be part of the ongoing environmental effort.”
When he was in the Hawaii House of Representatives, Takai authored a resolution that urged Congress and the VA to include within the definition of “atomic veterans” those in the Enewetak cleanup, and to make them eligible to receive compensation and health care benefits from the U.S. government. The resolution was unanimously adopted.
Takai’s office has been helped in its efforts by Ken Kasik, an Oahu resident who worked as a civilian at the military exchange commissary during the time of the Enewetak cleanup. The commissary was located on the island of Lojwa, and some of the Americans stationed there call themselves the Lojwa Animals, named after the large native rats the service members and civilians hunted at night to keep them out of their tents.
Kasik has also been on the dome, but before it was “corked,” as he put it. He also still has his film badge and dosimeter, though, like Androl, he doubts whether accurate, useful monitoring was being conducted.
He also said the water they drank was desalinated from the lagoon and was used in showers as well. In addition to colon cancer, he has heard of veterans with liver and brain cancer. For his part, Kasik, 63, said he has had multiple skin biopsies and surgeries for basic cell carcinoma.
“I never did get a banana (hazmat) suit, but I still have a gas mask and breather,” he said. “Nobody ever used them. We were not aware of what radiation did. There was no Internet.”
It was the Internet that has united the Enewetak veterans and helped get the word out about their plight.
Their campaign is picking up support.
“I think it’s a long time coming,” said Ronald Han, director of Hawaii’s Office of Veterans Services. “There is a lot of compelling information that these folks were affected by just doing their duty on the islands. They were serving their country, and they should have been advised of all of the health issues, even though there may not have been as much knowledge back then.”
Said Androl: “We want recognition for what we did. We were completely overlooked. It needs to be part of history.”