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.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.