Viewpoint: Vela Carlos
Branch: US Army
Job: 11B, Infantryman
Location: Lojwa, Marshall Islands
Quote: “We were trying to save the world for other people but we were the ones getting screwed…”
Viewpoint: Vela Carlos
Q – Before you were sent to the Marshall Islands, what did you know about the location or the mission?
A – My introduction to this project in the Marshall Islands went something like this. I was brought in by the sergeant major who told us that we were going to go clean ‘war debris’. That was it. That was all we knew. We were 11B’s (Infantrymen) so we thought we were going to pull guard duty of some sort (I was one of three 11Bs who went to Enewetak from Alaska) but that wasn’t the case. When we got down there, the clerk on Lojwa even questioned our presence. ‘We were just sent here.’ That was all we could offer as explanation.
Q – What was your job while you were there and what sort of protective equipment did you use?
A – We ended up working demolition. I ran a loader and a back hoe on Lojwa, worked a week over on Runit (location of Cactus Dome) and then was moved over to Engebi. We went out to some of the smaller islands to pick up debris.
Q – When did you first realize or suspect that the work environment you were once subjected to wasn’t right?
A – I had a paper mask and that was it. The uniform of the day usually consisted of cut-off fatigues, boots, and T-shirts (which we usually ended up taking off.) The heat got downright intolerable at times. And it wasn’t sand on the beach; it was coral, so there was no going barefoot. You’d cut up your feet pretty bad if you did. That coral also reflected the heat too.
We had to use water from the lagoon for making concrete. So to pump the water in, somebody had to walk out into the lagoon and hold the hoses down in the water. Working that angle in this cleanup wasn’t so bad. At least you could cool off in the water.
Working twelve-hour days, things were pretty relaxed out there. Even so, we tried staying busy. I was the sailing instructor at the rec center. There was one television out there that pulled in stations from Hawaii.
I found some skeletons when I was scraping topsoil; never knew if they were American or Japanese. We had to let HQ know about finds like that. They’d come in and box them up… once they took them away, that was pretty much the last we heard of it. We found tons of unexploded Japanese ordnance too, and when we went out diving in the lagoon, we found airplanes with skeletons still in them.
Q – What prompted you to share your experiences with the world?
A – As I said before, we didn’t know much of anything about the cleanup before we went to Enewetak. And it’s hard to say when I first thought there wasn’t something quite right about the mission. When we worked out there, we carried radiation badges. So when we turned them in, we tried not thinking about why we had them in the first place. Just before I was discharged from the military, I had to go to Carson. Cancer was brought up at that point but the topic was dropped really quickly. Ten years after I was discharged, I had to have back surgery. At that time, I was told I had the bone density of a 70-year old man. (Keep in mind, this was 20 years ago. I am not even in my 60’s today.)
Learning about the environment I had actually lived and worked in while I was stationed down there, I started searching the Internet. I found the Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Veterans survivor page and connected with one of the administrators Frank Bolton. We started talking about Enewetak and sharing our stories. Because of the various jobs we all did down there, some of us received more exposure than others but we all served together during the same period of time.
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 – If I could get a message out to the world, I’d tell them not to forget us. People talk about the threats of nuclear war in our history and they talk about the atomic era. Nobody talks about the guys who did time in The Marshall Islands. We were all out there, yet have been almost totally forgotten. The Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Veterans are a prime example for the world to see what could really happen. It has taken years, but we are proof as far as what kind of long-term effects could occur after nuclear exposure. But we’re still here. Nuclear related issues happen in other countries and this country is all over it, offering help, solutions, humanitarian aid, etc. But when things happen here, to our own people? What has happened to us?
We were in hell but didn’t know it at the time. Now, we’re dying…one breath at a time. It’s scary to look at our brothers who have passed, to look at their ages. They’re MY age. We were trying to save the world for other people but we were the ones getting screwed.
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.