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Atomic Legacy 

A Chapel Hill woman continues the fight for compensation for veterans exposed to radiation

The splitting of the atom nearly six decades ago began a dark chapter in U.S. history--one that Chapel Hill resident Sandra Kane "Sunny" Marlow is still trying to shed some light on.

Throughout the late 1940s and for years thereafter, thousands of U.S. military personnel were exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons. Although federal authorities don't deny the exposure, for decades they've claimed the effects were essentially harmless. Most "atomic veterans" were exposed at nuclear bomb test sites in the United States and abroad. Others were irradiated after being shipped to Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately following the atomic bombings of those Japanese cities 56 years ago this week.

Still others, including Marlow's father, Air Force Col. Nicholas Kane, were exposed when ordered to inspect ships that were used as props during weapons tests in the South Pacific. Marlow says as many as a quarter million veterans were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation. Thousands of them later developed cancer and died, yet the Veterans Administration has routinely denied claims for service-connected disability and death benefits--including one for Marlow's father.

Because of gaps in government records, by some accounts as few as 2 percent of survivors have won claims regarding radiation-related deaths of veterans. Chapel Hill resident Mitchell Lyman was one of the fortunate ones. With help from the late Sen. Terry Sanford, she was awarded a pension after her husband, John Rowen Lyman, died from cancer in 1977 (see "Atomic Suspicions," The Independent, Aug. 6-12, 1997). A former captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Lyman was likely exposed to radiation when he was assigned to Hiroshima and an atomic bomb test site at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.

Activists like Marlow hope a bill recently introduced in Congress will help more atomic survivors win compensation. The Justice for Atomic Veterans Act would expand the list of diseases presumed to be service connected, including many suffered by radiation-exposed veterans.

Marlow says her father, who died of leukemia in December 1977, was exposed to radiation two or three times during his military career. The highest doses likely came when he was assigned to monitor the USS Independence, an aircraft carrier that was towed to port in San Francisco Bay after being used as a prop in a 1946 nuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll.

In a letter to his wife, Rose, dated March 27, 1948, Kane described his work on the battleship: "Our group had spent the morning on the battered aircraft carrier Independence, scarred and twisted and misshapen from the atomic bomb tests at Bikini," he wrote. "I wandered across her warped flight deck, one airplane--fabric tattered, wings crumpled, poised, shattered on one side, the wooden deck itself an upheaval of metal and charred timbers. The hangar deck below, extending almost the full length of the carrier, was an empty shambles."

A claim Marlow and her mother initially filed in the 1980s for service-related death benefits for Kane was denied. But this year, bolstered by new journalistic investigations and a pledge of support from Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards' office, they've decided to try again.

Although government authorities told Marlow that her father had a "very low potential for exposure to radiation" on the Independence, a two-part series published in May by SF Weekly in San Francisco, found the carrier was later sunk off the coast because it was contaminated with radioactive waste.

For Marlow, the effort to uncover the truth of what happened to her father and other veterans has become an obsession. She says she keeps fighting because she believes those exposed to radiation were betrayed by the same government they patriotically served.

"It's deceit, denial," she says. "'Why?' is the question. I know the answer, but I'm having difficulty accepting the answer: That my government would lie."

To help her plod through complicated government documents, Marlow earned a master's degree in library science. A former committee co-chair of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, she has testified before Congress and granted numerous media interviews on the subject of atomic veterans. And she's collected hundreds of letters from survivor families documenting their frustration in trying to win just compensation for the deaths of their loved ones.

Marlow's research has led her to conclude a cover-up has been in place for years to reduce the government's liability and keep citizens in the dark about the dangers of nuclear weapons. By denying the harmful effects of radiation exposure, she says, the government is also protecting the nuclear power and weapons industries from a possible loss of public support.

As an example, Marlow cites a 1981 transcript she found of a communiqué in which then-Department of Defense General Counsel William H. Taft IV told the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs why the Pentagon opposed a bill favoring compensation claims by atomic veterans.

The bill "creates the unmistakable impression that exposure to low-level ionizing radiation is a significant health hazard when available scientific and medical evidence simply does not support that contention," Taft said in the document. "This mistaken impression has the potential to be seriously damaging to every aspect of the Department of Defense's nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion programs. The legislation could adversely affect our relations with our European allies, impact upon the civilian nuclear power industry, and raise questions regarding the use of radioactive substances in medical diagnosis and treatment."

For Marlow and other atomic survivors, the key issue is justice.

"Thousands of my country's atomic veterans have been denied medical treatment at veterans hospitals, because the illness was not considered service connected," she says. "Patriotic veterans such as my father have died. Many have not only suffered from the effects of cancers and forms of radiation illnesses similar to the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in addition, the emotional distress they and their families have endured is unjustified."

Despite pending legislation and new investigations, major obstacles remain in the effort to win compensation for those veterans. Proving a service-related death is difficult decades after the fact. Families must rely on government records, many of which are still classified--and some of which have been destroyed.

A 1983 lawsuit filed by the National Association of Radiation Survivors led to the shredding of thousands of pages of documents by the Veterans Administration--documents Marlow says would have helped bolster families claims for disability and death benefits. A subsequent federal court case in 1986 included testimony from VA employees who admitted files were selectively and intentionally destroyed in response to the lawsuit.

Still, Marlow and other activists believe the government will eventually acknowledge the plight of atomic veterans. They point to a recent letter the VA sent out marking July 16, 2001--the date of the nation's first atomic bomb test--as the official "Birth of the Atomic Age."

In that letter, no less a figure than President Bush urges Americans to "remember the service of the men and women who, in their exposure as test subjects or otherwise, faced potentially deadly effects for themselves and their descendants." EndBlock

  • A Chapel Hill woman revives her claim for death benefits for her dad, an "atomic veteran" of World War II.

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