Viewpoint: Robert Strongbear Bates
Branch: US Army
Job: Senior Medic NCOIC (Also a Veteran of Vietnam as well)
Location: Lojwa, Marshall Islands
When: Sep. 1978-April 1979
Quote: “I’m proud to have served my country and would do so again. I just wish they had been up front with us from the beginning…”
Viewpoint: Robert Strongbear Bates
Q – Before you were sent to the Marshall Islands, what did you know about the location or the mission?
A – Before being sent to the Marshall Islands, I was told I was being asked to ‘volunteer’ for a special duty assignment in the South Pacific: somewhere called Enewetak. My First Sgt knew that I was a scuba diver and told me it was going to be like taking a once in a life time vacation. Prior to that, I’d only heard about the place once before, back when my Dad had told me about being there himself during WWII.
We were sent to Hawaii first; Hickam AFB where we were billeted in NCO Transient Billets (which were more like a Holiday Inn with maid and room service). Then we went to Schofield Barracks for a day of in-processing, then back to Hickam where all I had to do was check in that morning by phone and then was free for the rest of the day for the next three days.
Q – What was your job while you were there and what sort of protective equipment did you use?
A – My first day on Lojwa, they had us dress in the ‘banana suit’ then paraded us around. (I thought that was more like a frat hazing.) Other than that, my uniform was usually just cutoff Jungle fatigue shorts, grey tee shirt, OD green socks, Jungle boots and Boonie hat. I wore a mask just one time.
As the NCOIC, I had the task of setting up the schedules for the medics, (such as who was going to be on which Island on what day) as well as making sure we had all the proper supplies for our medical bags (a challenge at times). As a medic, I was responsible for treating wounds, injuries and any illnesses, watching out for heat injuries (especially among the ‘Newbies’), reporting any personnel not fit for duty, as well as keeping logs of any and all injuries and reporting them to command.
Q – When did you first realize or suspect that the work environment you were once subjected to wasn’t right?
A – As far as when I began thinking something wasn’t quite right there, it was my first day on Enjebe (Janet). My medic shack was basically with the Air Force FRST (Field Radiological Survey Team, the guys who checked intensities and background levels of radiation contamination). They seemed concerned, so I asked them what was wrong. I was told that with the particular levels they were reading that our men ‘really’ should be in protective gear to ensure their safety. So when I returned to Lowja that night, I asked why we didn’t use or have any protective gear in the field. I was told that the radiation levels were really low level/borderline and that the gear wasn’t needed. I explained how the AF FRST guys had said that we probably should get some to which I was then told, “In a perfect world we might have everything that we need but we were in the military, so get back to your job, and don’t be a trouble maker.” We’d all be okay, I was basically told to tell everybody to shower off good and not eat the sand!
Q – What prompted you to share your experiences with the world?
A – I feel what we did there was important, at least if cleaning up some of the mess our country made really helped. (If all of that was just ‘eye wash’ then why were we there?) Places like Enewetak and the recent disaster with the nuclear power plant in Japan clearly show how nuclear power really isn’t so safe. I’m proud to have served my country but just wish they’d have been more upfront with us and given us the proper equipment to do the job right (and safe) to begin with. I’m sure that the majority of men I served with would say the same. Because like me, they cared about our country and served with honor.
Q – If you could commandeer the cameras and the mics at the next State of the Union Address, and address the entire nation about your time and the repercussions AFTER the Rock, what would be the message you would convey?
A – I’ll give you this parting remark; We were once young, trusting and naive soldiers. Now we are older, smarter, AND NOT SO TRUSTING. Just remember, as Edmund Burke stated, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We did something, didn’t we? Hopefully we made a difference.
I am but one of a few of the survivors of the 1977-1980 Enewetak Atoll Atomic Debris Cleanup Mission that took place in the Marshall Islands.
A major focus of this group has been to help one another with information and moral support during some of the challenging times we’ve encountered following our time in service at Enewetak.
A secondary focus/goal is to urge Congress to change current law and recognize Cold War Era soldiers of the Enewetak Cleanup Mission as “veterans who participated in radiation-risk activities during active service.”
By obtaining this second goal, individuals experiencing health complications resulting from radiation exposure at Enewetak Atoll will be eligible to apply for benefits that have previously been set-aside for other Atomic Veterans who have already been recognized and acknowledged for their service by RECA.
We urge our supporters to encourage their politicians to support legislation which will include Enewetak Atoll Atomic Cleanup Participants in the U.S. Government’s definition of a veteran “who participated in radiation-risk activities during active service.”
Request for Interviews: Over 8,000 people participated in the 1977 – 1980 Enewetak Atoll Atomic Debris Cleanup Mission. I’ve already interviewed nearly 25% of the Atomic Cleanup Veterans who have reconnected with our group. If you participated in the mission, please contact me, T-M Fitzgerald so you can schedule your 30 minute interview too. I’ve been told I’m easy to talk with and I am not shy to say I feel honored every time I meet another Atomic Cleanup Veteran.