Viewpoint: Vern F. Bates
Branch: US Army
Job: 61C10 Transportation Battalion LARC Mechanic (Light Amphibious Resupply Cargo)
Location: Lojwa, Marshall Islands
Quote: “It seemed we left more contamination than what we really cleaned up…”
Viewpoint: Vern F. Bates
Q – Before you were sent to the Marshall Islands, what did you know about the location or the mission?
A – Going to Enewetak? All we knew was that after seven days in Hawaii, we were in the Marshall Islands. We went to an in-processing deal and were told about the dangers of the sea life, not to eat the fish and not to eat any of the natural stuff from the islands.
Q – What was your job while you were there and what sort of protective equipment did you use?
A – When we first arrived, we were stationed on Enewetak. We ended up over on Lojwa but were moved back to Enewetak for what they called the ‘southern cleanup’. The thing is, they had the Air Force guys over there too for decontamination detail. It stood to reason then that there had to have been some kind of contamination present. So you’d think we’d have had some kind of protective gear to wear, but no. The only time we had anything was in the very beginning: banana suits they called them. We messed with those one time and that was it. We never saw any major protective gear; boots, shorts, and maybe an occasional T-shirt. We were told there weren’t any safety hazards to worry about. Never mind the fact that we dumped a lot of hot stuff (radioactive/contaminated) over there, especially into the lagoon.
Q – When did you first realize or suspect that the work environment you were once subjected to wasn’t right?
A – When did I suspect anything was wrong with this mission? Well, that’s a tough question. I never really suspected anything while I was there. It was more after the fact. Myself, I really didn’t feel like I was in any kind of trouble. I mean, I trusted the government. (Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.) As you know, we just had one of our LARC guys pass recently; Todd Lentini. Todd was a mechanic, too. He was there when I was and went back for another tour. Last Christmas he was diagnosed with cancer and by February he was gone.
They had civilian contractors over there that did the cooking for us. We had been told in safety briefing that we weren’t supposed to eat anything from the islands but those guys cooked stuff from out of the lagoon quite often. I never ate any of it, but some guys did.
Q – What prompted you to share your experiences with the world?
A – I thought I’d share my experiences at Enewetak because of all the health problems popping up among the other guys who served there. That, and the fact that the VA doesn’t want to help anybody. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve got any condition related to the time I spent there: I have some cardiac issues but not sure if that’s related to Enewetak.”
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 – As LARC guys, we were TDY. We were there to support to the 84th Engineers. Ours was a small group compared to them. So while I may not be as actively involved as some of the guys, I want to help. Many of my brothers are fighting some serious battles….
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.