They were knocked flat by the shock waves of nuclear bomb tests, their eyeballs scorched by the flash. They were trucked to ground zero, where ruined tanks were still in flames. They drank radioactive water and lived in ramshackle huts dusted over with fallout.
But the greatest ordeal for America's "atomic veterans" may have come years after the last of 1,051 U.S. nuclear blasts that exposed 400,000 members of the U.S. armed forces to dangerous radiation.
That was because the government persistently denied a service-related link to the health problems they developed and refused most of them benefits. Even now, as the Bush administration is finally allowing some compensation for many cancer-stricken atomic vets, thousands won't collect anything.
"I'd guarantee you there ain't a third of them still alive," said Albert (Smoky) Parrish, 73, of Hackensack, Minn. "We were overdosed with radiation, but they wouldn't tell us that. They covered that up and lost the records."
As an Army corporal half a century ago, Parrish was stationed in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas while some of the first atomic blasts were detonated on U.S. soil. He and his buddies in the 216th Army Chemical Service Corps, most of them young Minnesotans, measured radiation after the tests, removed civilians from "hot spots" and fought a losing battle with fallout.
Decades later, Parrish helped start a crusade for justice and began collecting his comrades' stories. They now make up part of his book, "Radiation, the Silent Killer," which is in the Library of Congress and published online at http://www.1stbooks.com (252 pages, $3.95).
Many of the 45 men he was able to contact have since died, Parrish said recently. "A very close buddy of mine, Dick Granger, got compensation just a month before he died," he said.
Granger wrote of going to ground zero 15 minutes after a blast and spending three days in an evacuation zone tending fallout trays and air samplers. "I found out later that the area was closed," he wrote. "The water tower reservoir was open on top and we had been drinking radioactive water."
Later, he worked in the motor pool using Tide soap and water to try to decontaminate jeeps and trucks. "Some of the vehicles would not come clean and were held in a special area of the motor pool," he wrote. "I did notice, however, that if we ran short of vehicles the contaminated ones were put back into use."
For decades, details of the bomb tests were shrouded in military secrecy, until the Clinton administration unsealed the records in 1993. But then the aging and ailing atomic vets ran into another obstacle -- a requirement in most cases that in order to receive compensation they prove their diseases stemmed from their service.
To do so, they had to rely on military records of individual radiation doses that Parrish and others contend were haphazardly collected and maintained. Some were lost in a fire at a federal repository. Many were developed by inference because some people working on bomb tests were never issued a radiation film badge or dosimeter and no one wore them all the time.
Most atomic vets' claims for benefits were refused on the grounds that they hadn't absorbed enough radiation on duty to make them sick.
Exceptions were made for those suffering from 16 types of cancer, including leukemia and cancers of the thyroid, breast, stomach, liver and esophagus. In those cases, the illnesses were presumed to be caused by radiation, regardless of the dose, and benefits of $2,000 a month to veterans or $900 a month to widows were paid.
But the list excluded some common cancers, notably those of the lung and colon. Critics contend that was done simply to save costs, although those cancers are often caused by radiation and many atomic vets suffer from them.
Last week, however, the Department of Veterans Affairs published proposed rule changes that would sharply reverse its policy toward atomic vets. If they have lung, colon, bone, brain or ovary cancer, they would automatically qualify for benefits.
Although the new list doesn't include some conditions that veterans advocates, including Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., had fought for, they agree that it will cover a vast majority of atomic vets' rightful claims.
Veterans Affairs pegs the cost of expanded benefits at $769 million over 10 years, estimating that 16,754 out of 139,617 claims would be honored. Under the current rules, barely 5,000 atomic vets have qualified for benefits.
The agency said the change, expected to take effect in five months, is warranted because civilian former nuclear workers already can qualify for benefits under similar rules. It also quoted a congressional finding that nuclear weapons testing involves "unique dangers including ... recurring exposures to radioactive substances that, even in small amounts, can cause medical harm."
A lucky one
Looking back at his work on eight bomb tests in 1952, Smoky Parrish said he would do it again.
"Russia was right behind us in the technology and we had to stay ahead of them," he said. "But I would have liked the Army to tell me about the dangers so I could protect myself."
He, too, drank radioactive water and drove daily in open jeeps over test sites where desert winds constantly stirred up fallout. But he counts himself lucky.
After years of smoking and welding, Parrish has emphysema and says, "I can't hardly walk," a condition he doesn't blame on his military service. But he has watched too many old friends wither and die from radiation-related ailments while government bureaucrats "kinda called us crybabies," he said.
His book cites a government doctor's suggestion that using U.S. troops for field maneuvers and psychological testing during bomb tests had a hint of Nazi concentration-camp-style ethics ("the Buchenwald touch," Dr. Joseph Hamilton wrote in 1950).
Parrish rails over "authority abuse" by his military superiors in the 1950s and the resistance of Veterans Affairs bureaucrats who he says were paid only to deny benefits to deserving veterans. And he wonders about the widespread, long-term effects of the 926 nuclear bombs detonated on U.S. soil.
"It's kind of hard to believe we're not Chernobyl," he said, referring to a Soviet nuclear power plant failure that spread deadly radiation over a wide swath of Eastern Europe. "I think our bomb tests are why there's so much cancer in the United States. That's just my opinion."
-- Conrad deFiebre is at email@example.com