Abused veterans speaking up

Nevada Proving Ground, November 1, 1951

Nevada Proving Ground, November 1, 1951


In the 1950s, some United States citizens forced to become soldiers or sailors, and numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were then forced to expose themselves to atomic tests in Nevada and the Pacific and remain afterward while the lethal residue floated down onto them, forced to sign confidentiality pledges promising not to talk about the experience, and were threatened with prosecution for treason if they broke that forcibly elicited pledge.

This form of abuse was part of the years-long cover-up of the lethality of fallout, the danger of which was known at the time to the Atomic Energy Commission that conducted the tests. AEC is now part of the U.S. Energy Department.

As a result, the dangers of the tests were further concealed.

The gag requirement was lifted by Congress in 1996, but the Clinton administration did nothing to publicize it and the atomic veterans, as they’re called, did not know they could open up about what had happened to them. More recently, they have learned about the change—in part because of a new documentary—and they are at last being heard, in places like Northumberland, New York; Hillsdale, Oklahoma; Pike County, Pennsylvania; and Burlington, Vermont.

In Vermont, Hank Bolden (Nevada): “I did not volunteer to go there. They volunteered me to go there.”

In Pennsylvania, Andrew Lyons (site unknown): “The atomic bomb went off and we could feel the heat from the blast and also the sound.”

In Oklahoma, Richard Simpson (Nevada): “What do you know when you’re a damn kid? … You just did what you were told.”

In New York, Ken Brownell (Enewetak Atoll): “We lived, breathed, drank, did everything in contaminated materials.”

All four men later developed cancers. Journalists were also exposed at the sites, but their attendance was not compelled by the power of the state.

One common recollection among many atomic veterans is the experience of seeing bones and blood vessels in their hands when the detonation came.

Atomic veterans are eligible for compensation, but the U.S. government’s record-keeping and records-protection have been so poor that officials do not know who served where and require the veterans to prove they were at bomb test sites. Lyons was forced to take a lie detector test to qualify.

The documentary is The Atomic Soldiers by Morgan Knibbe. Atomic veterans can obtain more information at www.naav.com.

This report includes information drawn from the Glen Falls [New York] Post Star, Muskogee [Oklahoma] Phoenix, Hawley [Pennsylvania] News Eagle, and WCAX News in Vermont.