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My father was an 'atomic vet'
November 11th, 2011
11:08 AM ET

My father was an 'atomic vet'

Three weeks ago, my father, Alexander Wadas, died from stage 4 lung cancer. He was 85, just one month short of his 86th birthday.

Since his diagnosis in June, the hideous disease, which spread to his bones, skin and brain, took his dignity - robbing him of his ability to eat, walk, speak, think, sit up, even swallow.

He died a horrible death that caused him to waste away from 200 pounds to 92 pounds in just four months.

Doctors say the cancer was not from smoking, but more likely from environmental factors. You see, my father was what the Department of Veterans Affairs refers to as an "atomic vet" - a veteran exposed to radiation during his or her military service.

In World War II, my dad was a Navy corpsman assigned to the 2nd Marine Division. His outfit served in the Pacific campaigns of Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. After the Japanese surrendered, he was in the first group of Marines to go into Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb was dropped.

There he stayed for four months with occupational troops, treating the Japanese people who survived. Every day, he walked through the city ruins, with no thought that the radiation around him could cause dangerous consequences for him later in life.

Back in the 1945, little was known about the effects of radiation. Today, studies done over the past 60 years show there is a definite link between high-dose radiation exposure and certain forms of cancer. The evidence is so strong that the U.S. government established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, which provides U.S. vets who were exposed to radiation from atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962 or were part of the occupation forces in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, monetary benefits if they've contracted any of 21 different cancers or other related illnesses.

The National Association of Atomic Veterans, or NAAV, an informational organization set up to help these men and women, is searching for about 185,000 "atomic vets" who may have suffered or died from cancer complications.

"A lot of these vets never talked about their involvement in these campaigns, because they took an oath of secrecy," notes R. J. Ritter, director and national commander of NAAV. "The oath wasn't lifted till 1996 and by that time a lot of these guys had already suffered complications or died. We need to get the word out that they or their families could be compensated if they match the criteria."

If you are one of these veterans, or you have a parent or spouse who might fit into these categories, you can contact the VA or go online to file a claim.

There is no amount of money that can bring back my father's hugs or replace his engaging smile, his wicked sense of humor or his words of wisdom. My dad suffered in a way I could never imagine.

However, I believe in justice. My father was a true patriot, who joined the Navy at the age of 17. He believed in the military lifestyle. He served for more than 24 years. He was a proud sailor and dedicated to his Marine division. When he went into Nagasaki, he did it for his country, no questions asked.

Now the question is, what can his country do for him or, in this case, for my mother, whom he left behind? Perhaps this is the only answer for many vets and their families.


soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. amystery

    Sorry for your loss. I do think that 85 (almost 86) is a good long life, well past the life expectancy. Maybe there needs to be a study of how many vets were exposed and how many got cancer, etc. Many civilians were exposed during atomic tests before and after WWII also.
    This doesn't lessen grief, but I think more should be done for the vets coming back now from the war. They don't have jobs, good medical care, good psychological care.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Absolutely

      Agree. His suffering also adds fuel to the "right to die" fire.

      November 12, 2011 at 09:04 | Report abuse |
    • Sherri

      My father, now dead, was also exposed to radiation. The Navy would bomb ships, then send in sailors onto those ships. Then the sailors would swim in the waters, eat the food from the affected ship. Others would come around with gieger counters, while dressed in space suits. My dad had all kids of problems during his life. Skin conditions, horrible problems with his eyes etc. I have a sibling with CP, which is one of the side effects. The doctors would always say they had never seen anything like what my dad had. The government is just waiting for them all to die and they've just about accomplished that.

      November 14, 2011 at 22:46 | Report abuse |
  2. swschrad

    actually, a LOT was known about the dangers of radiation in the wartime 40s. already scores of early researchers had become ill and died from radiation poisoning and overexposure. there were enough details to know the five levels of exposure and the illnesses they caused. there were enough cases that it was well-known at that time that ingestion of alpha emitters caused cancer.

    the difference is similar to the way the Soviets would clear a mine field... by marching a batallion of soldiers through it. "we need this goal, and we can accept X number of deaths to get it." I have an uncle and nephew-in-law who died from Agent orange exposure in vietnam.

    pursue your claims, don't give up, never ever give up. the only way we will take care of our veterans is to not let them be pushed aside.

    November 11, 2011 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • amystery

      agree 100 percent. I also knew Agent Orange victims and know it took forever for them to be taken seriously. I guess it was the same for Gulf War Syndrome....It's time for our government to be responsible and let the armed forces know what the risks are, not just take those risks for them.

      November 11, 2011 at 14:21 | Report abuse |
    • jacob

      I also had an uncle that walked on ground zero, not sure what island he walked but all his company died before 1961, the family never received any thing from the goverment . before joining the army they live in silver city new mexico not far from the testing of the first atom bomb.
      has the goverment paid for any of deads do to the radiation poisoning?

      October 27, 2012 at 15:33 | Report abuse |
  3. Cdr. R. J. Ritter

    Val: Please note that we will honor your Father's dedicated service and sacrifice for his family & country at our next annual Atomic-Veteran Memorial Service....

    November 11, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jim Troy

    My grandfather was an atomic vet also and passed away 2 years ago in very much the same manner. I am sorry for your loss and feel for you and your family. Coincidentally he was also in the 2nd Marine Division (1st Battalion 10th Marines) and fought in Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa and the occupation of Nagasaki. Who knows, maybe they new each other.

    November 11, 2011 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. c s

    I know a Navy vet who saw the first H-bomb test explode from a Navy ship. He told me that he was about 43 miles from ground zero but that it was too close. The blast shook his ship and it lighted up the sky like few persons have ever seen. I just sent him an article from AARP magazine about the atomic vets. So if you know any vets who were involved in nuclear weapon testing, you need to contact them as soon as possible.

    November 11, 2011 at 19:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. billlaux

    Sorry for your loss. Rest in peace, Chief. As everyone stated above...don't give up on your claim...your mother deserves it.
    Contact the Disabled American Veterans ( DAV ) for assistance. Fair winds and following seas to your Dad.
    SCPO, USN Retired

    November 11, 2011 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Richard

    He dies at 85 from cancer. Who'd have thought? The idea of blaming transitory exposure to radiation for a death that happened nearly 60 years later is ridiculous. He died of lung cancer was he a smoker? 50% of them die younger from lung cancer.

    November 12, 2011 at 03:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SamIam

      If you read the article he was not a smoker. Lung cancer is not an old age disease, Doctor

      November 12, 2011 at 06:41 | Report abuse |
  8. gayburr

    My dad too! He died at 75 from a very very rare cancer – Gastro-Intestinal Stromal Tumors (GIST). The VA acknowledged that this was a result of being part of Operation Crossroads – The Bikini Atoll testing of the Atomic Bomb. He was a young 17 year old seaman who took depth charges out to the target ships, then went back to his ship for the actual tests, and then had to go back out to the target ships to retrieve the samples and get them back for lab testing. NAAV was a great source of information. As you mentioned in the article, he never would talk about his service, until the last time I visited him, about a month before he died – we sat outside on a beautiful Fall day in New England and he recalled it all. I was spellbound. I am so grateful for that time with him. None of us knew that he would be dead in 6 weeks. His Dr had predicted 4-6 months. Thank goodness I didn't wait. Best of luck to you as you accept your new "normal!"

    November 12, 2011 at 08:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Steve Goff

    My dad died two years ago on father's day from the same thing. He was 80 years old and lung cancer absolutely destroyed him. He had served in the Navy in the Bikini Atoll atomic testing program. He said that he and his buddies would watch the atomic bombs go off from the deck. They had no protective clothing, not even sunglasses. He said they had to shield their eyes with their hands from the extreme brightness when the atomic bombs were detonated. Bad deal.

    November 12, 2011 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jason

    To this day, you have publications floating around, insisting the radiation levels at the devastated cities, dropped to safe levels in weeks. I don't know what would have made their radiation, more special than any other.

    November 12, 2011 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. John

    This article ends with the question of what can Alexander Wadas' country do for him?
    This question was answered within the article: the US gov't recognized this injustice and established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990.
    Lots of people die of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their life AND never were exposed to "excessive" amounts of radiation. A lot of these same people also never saw the ripe old age of 85.
    Val, your dad gave you and your mom a lot of hugs, smiles, and wisdom throughout his long life. There are many who lost parents far earlier than you. You should be thankful for that.
    It is very disturbing.

    November 13, 2011 at 03:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dystopiax

    ==Now the question is, what can his country do for him or, in this case, for my mother, whom he left behind?==

    His country can get his wife a second husband, perhaps a C.O. Then, it can draft a Will for her where she bequeaths her estate to the heirs of her 2nd husband.

    November 13, 2011 at 08:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Altmulig

    A father's death is a painful loss at any age. But, at age 86, you need to ask how many long and high exposure x-rays did he receive in the service and in civilian life? Even dental x-rays were long exposure and high dose in the 40's, 50's, 60's, and 70's. Did he have MRI's, CT scans, lung x-rays? Long exposure, high dose chest x-rays were not uncommon after the war.

    I am not a doctor, but I agree with the writer who said that transitory exposure 60 years earlier would have manifested itself sooner. At 86, your Dad had a good run of innings. I'm sorry that his final year was so difficult for him and you and your family.

    November 13, 2011 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Mike

    So he lived a long healthy life up until shortly before the end? Yet the article is saying that his death was due to radiation exposure a very long time ago. Many people that have never been exposed to radiation die long before they reach 85, so I don't see the point of this.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. midwestmatt

    My grandfather, a Navy Cross recipient for actions taken to keep his ship afloat after being torpedoed just prior to WW2, witnessed numerous atomic bomb explosions in which he was so close that he absorbed enough radiation to become sick. His wedding ring was temporarily removed due to radiation coming off of it. He retired as a Captain well after the war.

    The Service knew darned well that radiation killed people and that what they were doing would harm the personnel witnessing the explosions as close as my grandfather was.

    My grandfather lived a long life, into his early 90s, but there's no telling what long term effect the radiation had on him. No one gets that many rads and it has no effect on them.

    My condolences to the author and their loved ones.

    November 13, 2011 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Dar

    My dad passed away in 1969, from a Lukemia that he got because of Atomic testing ... I was 9 years old. I have often wondered if I could get compensation but never really tried. He had remarried and had 2 other daughters that apparently got compensated way back when. He was just 36 and had served for a long time. I also wondered what damage that it did to us kids and our kids.

    November 13, 2011 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. pat

    The government knew, did not care. If you are a vet do not count on them helping you. Myhusband served in Viet Nam, suffers side effects from Agent Orange. They will tell you your symtoms are caused by other things,never Agent Orange. They tell you they are here to help, yea right.

    November 13, 2011 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LAHTHA yvonne terry

      I AGREE WITH YOU OUR MEN ARE SENT TO VIETNAM TO SERVE THEIR COUNTRY AND THEY GET DISEASES FROM THOSE CHEMICALS OVER THERE. WHEN THEY COME HOME AND NEED COMPENSATION FOR THEIR SERVICE THE GOVERNMENT DON'T GIVE A DAM. MY HUSBAND DIED FROM THOSE CHEMICALS I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO GET FINANCIAL HELP SINCE FEB OF 2003 THEY CONTINUE TO SAY HIS DEADTH WAS NOT SERVIVE RELATED

      August 20, 2013 at 14:03 | Report abuse |
  18. Cdr. R. J. Ritter

    Given that the U.S. detonated 1,154 nuclear & thermo-nuclear bomb devices ( from July, 1945 to Nov, 1992 ), and given that more than 550,000 military personnel were exposed to "ionizing" radiation particles ( both externally, and inhaled or injested ), the majority of the World's population have no idea of the long-term effects of radio-isotopes within the human mechanism..... By the time their "oath-of-secrecy" was recinded ( in 1996 ) more than 330,000 A-Vet's were in their graves, buried with their secrecy oath, and smitten by an "invisible" enemy, during "atomic-warfare" exercises with real "live" nukes....... They died without any thanks or proper recognition from their Government ...... Does that make you proud ??? As Nat. Cdr. of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, and a member of the Veterans Advisory Board on Radiogenic Health Issues, I can say that all Atomic-Veterans are America's "forgotten" Patriots, and deserve the utmost respect for their duties and sacrifices during the Cold-War years.....

    November 14, 2011 at 06:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. DrMikey

    What a good thing to do, even in this case of the loss of a father, which can be a hard blow for any good child.
    Helping others is what more of us should always think of doing, not just feeling the grief, and suffering in lonliness.
    Yes it is very sad to see our dads loose weight and become nothing like the men we looked up to, in our days of youth.
    My dad does not have cancer, but his hyperthyroidism got to him causing him enormous weight loss, even though he takes meds, and had thyroid I 131 therapy now some almost 20 years ago.

    November 14, 2011 at 11:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. DrMikey

    Any "Atomic vet" should seek help, because life is precious, and the country you serve, can help, so why not accept the offer? There are other veterans, whose governments cannot help. Not so with the US army.

    November 14, 2011 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • J Androl

      I was in the U.S.Army and they have NOT HELPED ONE BIT. It is our Government. It is not up to individual military branches. It is Strictly a dollars and cents thing set by our politicians.

      June 25, 2012 at 16:11 | Report abuse |
  21. Janet Masoni

    I too am the daughter of an "atomic vet." My father passed away from bladder and bone cancer in Jan. of 2010. He is greatly missed. He loved the Air Force and made it his career from 1941-1967. He spoke occasionally about going out to test sites in the Nevada desert; never in great detail, because they were sworn to secrecy, and my father was an honorable soldier. He did talk about going out to the desert in a jeep and just having his hands to "protect' him from the blasts. He remembered seeing his bones through his hands. My father's name was Harry A. Hill. He started his career at the bottom rank and worked his way up to Lt. Col. His military service took him through, W.W. II, Korea, and Vietnam wars. He received numerous military decorations and awards, including the Bronze Star Medal. I have currently started the process of filing a claim, and am interested in knowing how others have benefitted, and am looking at ways to streamline the process. Also if anyone remembers Harry A. Hill of the U.S. Air Force, I would love to hear from you. My father was instrumental in helping soldiers achieve their goals in the Air Force; one of them being General Nate Lindsay.

    November 14, 2011 at 19:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • John Ladendecker

      Your Father is a Hero. I almost wrote was instead of is. Once you become a Hero you remain a Hero for eternity. Thank you for sharing.

      May 15, 2014 at 20:28 | Report abuse |
  22. lamp

    While this is a touching story about respectful, patriotic man, it is unfortunately acting to further misconceptions about the biological effects of radiation. The article is suggesting that radiation exposure is the direct cause of the lung cancer that killed him. For a dose of radiation to substantial enough to be deadly, it would have to have been much, much more significant than what he was exposed to, and the effects would have been much more immediate. His death is not the direct result of radiation exposure. It is impossible for the radioactive elements to be suddenly harmful, and cause a cancerous growth after 60 years.

    Considering the conditions, I would surmise that his death and others are the result of secondary consequences following the aftermath of the explosion. Breathing the dust and particulate matter (vaporized from all types of materials during the explosion) possess a much greater risk to his health.

    November 15, 2011 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. E.J.

    My father died December 1, 1983 at the age of 63. The doctors at the VA hospital in Ann Arbor, MI diagnosed the unknown lung disease that had rendered him oxygen dependent since July of 1980, as radiation poisoning. He too was one of the Marines sent into Nagasaki after the dropping of the bomb. At the time of the VA diagnoses he applied for compensation from the U.S. Government and was turned down. He was told that he did not have one of officially recognized diseases caused by radiation exposure.

    November 18, 2011 at 11:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. DB

    My father was in Nagasaki with 39 other Marines when the bomb was dropped on a recon mission. He then spent 10 months there after the troops landed. Of the original 40, They all died from cancer except for 3 of them. The first one died within a year and a half. All of my brothers and sisters were born with birth defects.

    January 3, 2012 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Cdr. R. J. Ritter

    Would like to thank the AARP folks for assisting us with our "outreach" efforts. The response to their ( Nov., 2011 ) article was overwhelming, and we hope the Atomic-Vets and their surviving widows will be successful in filing claims for "radiiogenic" helath issues, currently recognized as being "presumptive," resulting from exposed to radiation while actively, and poudly serving their country's needs........

    January 26, 2012 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Naychuby

    Great article but it didn't have eevryhitng-I didn't find the kitchen sink!

    February 1, 2012 at 01:58 | Report abuse | Reply
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    February 3, 2012 at 12:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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    February 6, 2012 at 03:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. ynette fitchette harris

    Trying to locate any paper work om my dad birth marrige and get anY THING TO show up without being blurred on purpose. At wits end

    June 6, 2012 at 18:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Hugh Stephens

    We have been looking into the difference between benefits available under the Radiation Exposed Veterans Compensation Act (REVCA) (administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs), the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) (administered by the Department of Justice) (On-site Participants ($75,000), Millers, Minors and Transporters ($100,000) as well as Downwinders ($50,000)) and the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act (EEOICPA) (Energy Employees with cancer or other illnesses likely caused by radiation or other hazardous substances ($150,000 for Cancer or Beryllium Disease and certain other lung illnesses under Part B and up to $250,000 for illnesses caused by exposure to hazardous substances including radiation at a Department of Energy (DOE) facility under Part E). We have made a number of posts to our blog on these subjects that your readers might find interesting. Attached is a link to our recent blog post on procedures for filing REVCA claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs and an article about these issues in the November AARP Bulletin.

    http://wp.me/pPeHi-3v

    Please let us know if you have comments or questions about any of these programs.

    July 2, 2012 at 11:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Hugh Stephens

    Our blog can also be found by visiting our website at http://www.stephensstephens.com.

    July 2, 2012 at 11:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Mary Jane Hardy

    My father died of cancer at the age of 58. His stomach was full of tumors. He served with the navy during WWII and was in Okanawa. My mother is a healthy 97 years young and I am trying to find out if there is any compensation she could get from the VA. He was taken at a young age and two of his five children were still in high school when he died. How should I go about getting information for her?

    September 15, 2012 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Laurie Bowen Brown

    To those of you posting that radiation cannot hurt someone 30-60 years later, you are dead wrong! Most scientific studies, done outside of the nuclear industry, have proven that a single "hot particle", taken internally, can and most likey will cause cancer decades down the road! FYI, before we started all this nuclear, gmo, and pesticide stuff, there was no such thing as cancer...the studies done on Egytian mummies and older bones show NO signs of cancer...this is a man made disease!
    My Dad passed away a little over 3 years ago from pancreatic cancer. Keith C Bowen, he served in the Navy, stationed in the pacific, during the 1957, and 1958 nuclear testing. He was 72 years old. I watched my Daddy go from a healthy, strong man, to a decimated man in just eight months from this very rare cancer. I know my Daddy is in Heaven and that someday I will see him again and what a great comfort that is...but the way he had to die? was horrible...I have to wonder if my Dad was part of the Atomic Vets also? My Dad was a great man and his memory will live on in the memories of our family and the many lives he touched throughout his life, yet I wonder if he really needed to die in that manner...God bless you dear...I hope and pray you can find peace through this new "normal" we have entered !!!

    February 24, 2013 at 19:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. jill rankin

    It is heartbreaking to hear these accounts. My father was a colonel. He was in ww2, korea and south africa. He died 10 years ago. I've spent about 10 years trying to get his military records and learn who he really was. As an army brat, us survivors should be recognized by what family members went through. To now see that the secrecy and oath he took as he watched smokey 4 miles away makes me ill.

    I now understand that he too must have risen his hands to cover his eyes as your father did janet. I remember every few months his hands would lose all the skin and be almost to the bone. We would ask what the doctor said? He just wore this cream with cloth gloves over his hands.

    We are talking about cancer here. I find the emotional effects on these great men and women far more reaching. As an adult I am so sad and try not to be bitter of the father we gave to this country and the man I didn't have a chance to appreciate for the government secrets.

    It's a disgrace.

    April 6, 2013 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. jill rankin

    Some of the content I included in my post was deleted edited and not shown in the previous post.. I noted specific battles, service and he was one of the volunteer officers at Smokey in Nevada.

    April 6, 2013 at 23:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Martin Lagan, Jr

    My father was in the 2nd Marine Division and one of the first into Nagasaki after the bomb, stayed for several months. He died exactly the same way you describe when he was 52. in 1976. He left a wife and 5 children. I was the oldest at 18, the youngest was 11. They eventually snipped his spinal cord so he couldn't feel the pain as his bones dissolved. He died in our living room where my mother had cared for him for months. The whole family had/has PTSD. I have always said my dad died in the war, but I was born in 1957. I was wondering if a study had been done and how many veterans, and families, suffered this same fate.

    April 15, 2013 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Julie

    My father was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 50. For two excruciating years we watched him suffer until he passed away in March of 1983 at age 52. Dad had health problems most of his adult life. The gorvernment's quest for superiority robbed us (wife and 6 children) of our dad.

    August 17, 2013 at 10:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. David Jack

    I was a young petty officer (19) aboard the USS Ponchatoula in 1962 Operation Dominic1 stationed at Christmas Island. Our ship was less than 23 n/miles for 5 of the 30+ atmospheric blasts. I have been battling a recurrent brain tumor for 24 years....skin growing in the brain. I learned about "Atomic Vets" through the AARP article. I filed a claim Aug. 8th of 2012 for the BT and was then discovered to have stage 3 lung cancer Jan 2013. My claim has been ongoing for 18 months now....I was given 1 to 3 years to live....have had radiation treatment and chemo. We will know in June (PET Scan) if we got it all.

    Yesterday I received a notice from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency regarding my estimated dose of radiation at Christmas Island....External gamma dose: 18 rem with internal dose to the brain at 0.1 rem. I do not know what this means except to know I have been very ill for a long time and on Social Security since 1991. I just turned 71.

    February 27, 2014 at 16:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Ricky cathey

    My father in law Richard Cochran also in Heroshima he also died of lung cancer not a smoker

    May 12, 2014 at 14:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Sherry Hudler Clennan

    My father was in the navy in world war 2 and the day after the bomb went off in heroshima he was sent to help clean up bodies. He was on charged a group of sailors that did body count and collected up dead bodies. He died at the young age of 62 of bone cancer! I always felt that this was due to heroshima! I'm glad somebody's doing something about this.

    August 16, 2014 at 00:27 | Report abuse | Reply

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