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Getting the Word Out to Atomic Veterans Exposed to Radiation

Veteran R.J. Ritter works to reach them with benefits

A total of 557,000 atomic veterans were exposed to lethal radiation. They include those who cleaned up the radioactive Nagasaki and Hiroshima sites after the war, prisoners of war in Japan when the bombs were dropped, and the thousands who witnessed 200 atmospheric nuclear tests conducted primarily in Nevada and in the Pacific Ocean — as the United States set off in a frantic Cold War effort to increase its arsenal of nuclear weapons, according to the Defense Department.

Few collecting damages

In the last three years, NAAV has helped 50 widows apply for benefits, but only a dozen have been successful in their applications, because it is difficult to prove their cases, Ritter says.

The government reports that only 1,641 claims have been approved for a onetime payment of up to $75,000 since 1992. Ninety percent are for veterans, the others for civilians working at the sites, according to Ritter.

The VA has granted at least 1,964 claims to date for monthly disability payments. The VA did not start tracking them electronically until 2006.

"A lot more could have applied," says Paul Blake, of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which has the records of the military personnel at every site and can verify an atomic veteran's presence at a deadly test.

Ritter underscores the urgency of finding these aging veterans.

"I am driven more by the fact these guys didn't know what they were doing. I didn't know what I was doing. I was 17," Ritter says. "I get great satisfaction in getting a call from someone who says, 'I just got my check. Thank you.' "

Also of interest: Medical imaging and too much radiation. >>

Judi Hasson is a writer in McLean, Va.

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