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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 (84 Responses)
  1. Barbara Piper

    My dad Walter Piper enlisted in the Navy to get the branch of service he wanted in WWII, as his father was a Navy Man in WWI. He was a plank owner on the USS Wilkes Barre, he served his time in the Pacific.... Dad passed in 1987 at 62 due to CML Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. I have always felt his disease was caused by his service to our country and his exposure to radiation. He serve at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and helped rescue Sailors from the USS Bunker Hill after it was hit by kamikazes. He also told of going on land after the nuclear bomb and securing weapons etc. he was at Tokyo Bay when the Peace Treaty was signed by President Harry Truman. I tried once with the VA to get some help for my mother, but was told his ship was not in the ten mile radius of the bomb. Yes that was their answer to me. If anyone else would like to correspond about this.. My email is mygrlbabs@aol.com. Im so sorry for everyone's loss, losing alive done is never easy. God Bless.

    January 19, 2017 at 21:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sharon

    my dad was the radio operator in the 326th Bombardment unit Strategic Air Command. He left the Air Force in 1955. His military record lists the following tests he was involved in: OP IVY, UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE, CASTLE, TEAPOT and WIGWAM. This was 1952-54. All involved the atmosphere hydrogen bombing. He died in 1968 of a brain aneurysm and my Mom was told that if he hadn't died from it he would have been dead within two months because he had cancer in every where in his body including his brain. He left the AF in 1955 and dead in 1968 at 36yo. I have always thought that my Mom should have been able to get compensation for his death. After all these years I doubt that it is possible. She is 87yo and could use it for medical issues. I wonder how many children had to lose their father or mother from this lack of interest,

    October 18, 2017 at 12:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. E

    My husband was also in the 2nd Marines arriving in Nagasaki in September. I have been trying to get some compensation for a very long time. He had 3 of the presumptive cancers and our poor son died very young because of the radiation exposure his father had.

    Has anyone been able to get any sort of compensation for their premature deaths?

    October 30, 2017 at 13:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. R Marquez

    My grandfayher was boots on the ground in Hiroshima.I believe this goes deeper in families My mother had her leg amputated at 16. She was never the same she still suffers from mental illness as many due in my family.My grandfather died of esophagus cancer over 13 years ago.

    November 10, 2017 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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  6. Gail Hiatt

    My late father was exposed to radiation in testing of the nuclear bomb. I am very interested in finding information about the heath hazards of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those exposed. My father died at 90. He had problems with his thyroid, as do all of his children, most of his grandchildren, and now at least one great-grandchild. My son has nodules, my daughter had a biopsy of her thyroid, my sister's children have thyroid problems also. I am sorry for your loss.

    May 6, 2018 at 00:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Duane Ray

    my son has heart disease what should i do my dad war involved in nuclear testing

    May 21, 2018 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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  9. Emery Stautzenberger

    I am a Atomic Vet and I am trying to get the Test for Radiation Exposure while in the Service. Has any Vet been tested If so how do they Test for that . I have a date set soon .I still don't know how they test for it. Would like to know if any Vet has been tested and what and how do they Test ? Please respond if you have any answers . Thanks

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  10. Name*Margot

    I found out just recently, the day of my mother’s funeral, that my dad had been at the New Mexico site. My cousin told me. His father was very close to mine, so even though it was Top Secret, he must have told him before he died. That was the reason he died of acute lymphatic leukemia 4 years after; at least that’s what they were always told. . I was 22 months when he passed at age 30. I don’t remember him. To this day, I long to be near him, hear his voice, and hug him.

    September 24, 2019 at 04:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.