When we were able to obtain disability benefits for my client Hermogenes Marrero after 14 years of rejected appeals, we set an important precedent. Marrero had been stationed at Vieques island in Puerto Rico, one of the highest toxicity US military sites on the planet.
Although the government has abundantly recognized that highly toxic substances were being handled and released on the Vieques camp, disability claims continue to be denied by the VA.
While researchers and physicians from the most prestigious institutions have concluded that people exposed to such toxicity routinely develop life-threatening conditions, this is seldom enough to prompt a favorable decision from the VA.
Unfortunately, there is a long road ahead until all our veterans receive the medical attention and compensation they deserve. In the case of Vieques, thousands of islanders filed a lawsuit with Marrero as the prime witness, but the court ruled against them. Beyond the lovely Puerto Rican island, there are many other infamous former military sites.
Like Vieques, the Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean was the site of extensive bomb testing, in this case, nuclear bomb tests. The case of Tim Snider, a former Air Force radiation technician, reminds us once more why we must keep fighting for the often forgotten veterans who unknowingly put their lives at risk while working in polluted environments and manipulating hazardous materials.
Snider was brought on the Enewetak Atoll when he was barely 20 years old. His job: nuclear fallout cleanup. The now 58-year-old veteran recalls being dressed up in modern protective gear for a promotional video when he arrived on Enewetak, but never seeing such gear again, and being subjected to massive amounts of radiation as he walked around the island, doing his job, wearing nothing but shorts and a sun hat. “I never saw one of those suits again,” he has commented.
The nuclear cleanup on the Enewetak Atoll was the largest ever undertaken by the US military. As a likely result of his exposure to radiation, Snider now has tumors in his skull, spine, and ribs. Thousands of Snider's coworkers recall not having worn respirators or other protective gear while cleaning up the nuclear testing site.
Hundreds of them are now suffering from multiple diseases commonly associated with exposure to nuclear radiation. Some have even parented kids with rare birth defects.
Many of the people who did the same job as Snider are now dead. While the government has recognized that the people who participated in the nuclear tests at Enewetak were harmed by radiation, that does not include those who were in charge of cleaning up the site.
The nuclear tests on the Atoll wiped out entire islands. The cleanup was originally going to be done by a private contractor, but the government decided to cut costs by using troops.
Possibly as a means to reduce costs even further, the military failed to provide servicemen with adequate protective gear for the Enewetak cleanup, veterans claim. As a result, Snider and his colleagues walked around the Atoll in a cloud of plutonium dust.
The disability checks Enewetak cleanup veterans are not receiving would be a poor compensation for a life of disease and hardship. In many cases, the nuclear site cleaners lost the ability to earn their living. For some of them, radiation may not only have affected them, but also their families. Decades after their stints on the Enewetak Atoll, these veterans are yet to receive any acknowledgment from the government, let alone benefits.
Snider is fighting the same fight we fought with Marrero over Vieques. There are many brave men and women out there who will go to great lengths to get to the truth and fight for justice. But it is outrageous that in 2017 we still have to witness ailing, cancer-ridden veterans fighting for basic health coverage and disability benefits.
If a high-ranking officer in the military were to order someone to work in the conditions Marrero or Snider once had to endure, it would be considered a criminal act. That alone should be proof enough that the US military owes these veterans infinitely more gratitude than it appears prepared to give them.