More help for Nation’s atomic veterans

WASHINGTON— “It’s about time.... That’s how the leader of the nation’s largest veterans organization reacted today to regulations to be proposed by Acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Hershel Gober that would make it easier for “atomic veterans” to acquire free-of-charge VA health care and disability compensation.

Certain veterans suffering from cancer of the bone, brain, lung, colon or ovary would presumed to be ailing from exposure to ionizing radiation related to military service, which means veterans with those diagnoses would have an easier time proving they are eligible for benefits.

Currently, “atomic veterans” are those who participated in atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in the 1940s, 50s and 60s or were held captive in Japan or participated in the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But under the new rules, VA would also recognize those who were at underground tests in Alaska and those were assigned to certain nuclear weapons plants in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. “It’s about time the government stop forcing these veterans to fight two wars — one for freedom and the other for the benefits they earned,” American Legion National Commander Ray G. Smith said. “Veterans exposed to ionizing radiation have been through hell, working hard to prove their illnesses are service-connected while suffering from the grave scars of their sacrifice. I commend Acting Secretary Gober for doing the right thing for veterans as the administration also reaches out to sick civilians who manufactured America’s nuclear arsenals.”

The new rules would extend eligibility for benefits to those exposed to radiation connected to underground nuclear test at Amchitka Island, Alaska prior to 1974, and at gaseous diffusion plants in Paducah, Kentucky, Portsmouth, Ohio; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee (area K25). “Conspicuously missing is the nuclear facility at Hanford, Washington, which has had a long history of radiation problems,” Smith said, recommending it be added to the list. “Civilians at these plants are also eligible under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 for diseases related to exposure to beryllium and silica. VA should apply the same standards to veterans who served on active duty at these plants.”

The American Legion successfully represented a major claimant: Orville E. Kelly, who in 1979 was awarded disability compensation by the VA for his radiation-linked cancer. The landmark case set the stage for the awarding of benefits to thousands of “atomic veterans.”

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