Viewpoint: John Lee Hodge
Branch: US Army
Job: Communications Specialist (Held initial MOS of 11B, qualified in multiple MOS’s)
Location: Lojwa, Marshall Islands
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: John Lee Hodge
Q – Before you were sent to the Marshall Islands, what did you know about the location or the mission?
A – We really didn’t know a whole lot about the deal. I had a brother who was already there. He was part of the first crew that went down there. When I started going through the whole process of being assigned and got to HQ with the 84th Engineers on Enewetak, people were asking about my brother. It was a real culture shock for me. I mean, I was Infantry. I was used to doing PT every day, we worked and trained Infantry and then rest was rest. That’s exactly what you did. When we were assigned with the Engineers on Enewetak, things worked a lot differently. I remember asking what time PT was and was told, ‘We’re engineers. We don’t do PT.’ They wondered just like I did about what exactly I was doing there. ‘We don’t have slots for combat guys here. You need to go upstairs to the MARS Station and talk.’
Q – What was your job while you were there and what sort of protective equipment did you use?
A – I was exempt from any duty rosters. I worked at the MARS Station doing communications. It was very easy duty. Coming from an infantry unit, I was used to being busy constantly.” (Mr. Hodge shared the many MOS designations he was qualified in: 11B, 11C, 36K10, 05B. 05C, 05D, 63B). I worked communications and other jobs just to keep busy because I had a lot of free time.
Q – When did you first realize or suspect that the work environment you were once subjected to wasn’t right?
A – Work crews had been out scraping topsoil since before I ever got there. I was watching them one time and happened to ask about it. Of course, they told me the surface was ‘hot’ (radioactively contaminated) and so they’d have to scrape down some more. You could look out and see those guys doing their job but that was what it was all about.
Q – What prompted you to share your experiences with the world?
A – When I got down there, it was ‘150 days and you were done. Next plane off the island and you were on it.’ We had incoming on Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings, we had people out in front of HQ ready to leave. But I didn’t go that route. I was extended. That means I went past the 150 day mark. So, as I was told, I was the only junior-grade enlisted that got a 2-for-1 deal. I was credited for an overseas tour with my time in Hawaii and a hardship tour for Enewetak. As far as I know, a lot of the officers didn’t even get that. I got two tours out of it.
I spent 305 days in the Marshall Islands. It was your typical American GI scenario; ‘Make the best with what you got.’ There were lots of memories, -some good, and some bad. And protective gear? Let me tell you a little something about that. When I went to Lojwa, they sent me through a class on the banana suits. We dressed out in full gear; mask, gloves, hood, tape…We basically toured the island in that getup. It was the first, last, and only time I wore it. After that, my job had me in an air-conditioned building the entire time I was there. I was more concerned with exposure to the radiation I had inside than I was with whatever was outside. I guess it was because I didn’t know about any problems out there. None of us did at the 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 – Right now, I don’t have any health issues. I’ve been a smoker for almost 50 years and I have the smoker’s hack… but my brother, on the other hand, has degenerative bone disease. He was in the Marshalls in 1977 for six months with the first crew as a mechanic. His bunch worked on the vehicles down on the ramps at the lagoon. They sucked in all the dust they kicked up so constantly.
One night when all was said and done, this guy asked me if I would talk to some of his friends on the radio. And you know, we had to be careful about what we said out there because Russia wasn’t far off. So a night or two later, we got on the radios and started talking. It was 1978, and this fellow started asking me all kinds of questions about the radiation on the Islands, what did I know about it, had I seen any weird stuff and if anybody was getting sick or anything. I was just a radio guy so I didn’t know the answers to a lot of the questions. Turned out, that guy was a congressman on the Mainland. So I’ve had about forty years to think about that single 10-15 minute conversation. There was something more to it than I knew at the time.
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.”
Article written by T-M Fitzgerald, a published author and self-professed Veterans Advocate.
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.