Ignored and largely forgotten

Workers in 1977 began clean up activity at Enewetak Atoll and construction activity at Runit Island that would lead to the building of what is now known as the Runit Dome. They rarely used protective gear despite working at the ground zero for 43 nuclear weapons tests. Photo: Alan Leeman.


About 8,000 Americans participated in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll. An additional untold number of Marshallese and people of other nationalities were also involved in the cleanup that ran from January 1, 1977 to April 15, 1980 — after which, the people of Enewetak were allowed to return home to live on the southern islands in their atoll.

Despite this large number of people who spent many months — some spent years — working at ground zero of a former nuclear weapons test site, they were not eligible for or provided with any medical care or recognition of the risk of their work in the late 1970s. The US government simply ignored them.

As health problems began to mount for many of these Enewetak cleanup men and some died at an early age, some began to advocate for recognition. These included men such as Rich Doherty, an Army veteran, and Paul Griego, a civilian contractor.

During the cleanup, those involved rarely used personal protective gear except for public relations purposes.

Radiochemist Paul Griego, center, in a photo from Enewetak in 1978. The military officer at left is checking his hands for radioactivity using a Geiger counter.

Islands throughout the atoll were highly radioactive from the 43 nuclear weapons tests. “We’d go along the beaches at low tide and pick up metal from the blown-up ships, debris, ordinance, stuff from World War II, rusted Japanese helmets, some unexploded ordinance, which we’d sometimes blow in place,” then-Army Private Mark Sargent told the New York-based publication Vice two years ago. “The Geiger counter would go off like crazy. You know that sound it makes? It’s just, you know it’s bad. And this is with your bare hands.”

In his December 2020 feature about the Enewetak cleanup, titled “Remembering American’s Forgotten Nuclear Cleanup Mission,” Vice writer Chris Shearer said in the years since the cleanup, “the men involved in the cleanup have found themselves facing health problems similar to those experienced by the men who witnessed the tests. But unlike those crews, the Enewetak cleanup veterans haven’t received government support or even acknowledgment they were affected.

“For years they’ve faced resistance from various defense agencies who claim they weren’t exposed to significant levels of radiation, and that ‘it would be difficult to identify additional radsafe precautions that could have been taken’ during the mission. But the men who served on Enewetak tell a different story: one of improper or defective equipment, and of management who constantly underestimated the risks.”

Griego, a civilian radiochemist, served on the atomic cleanup from start to finish. He said protective gear was rarely used.

“I went to all of the contaminated islands collecting soil for analysis,” he said. “It was my work that was used to decide what was to be sealed in the dome and what was to be dumped into the lagoon. I collected soil on my hands and knees at ground zero without any radiation protection nor even a pair of garden gloves.”

Rich Doherty was an E-4 US Army combat engineer from Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He arrived with a group at the beginning February 1978. “We were the first to start the cleanup of Parry and Medren Islands,” Doherty said. “I personally bulldozed 50 percent of Medren. Then I was sent up to Lojwa in May 1978. I started bulldozer work on Runit, closed in that huge gap in the cactus crater so the operations could begin.” Doherty said he also piled contaminated soil up to a batch plant that made the concrete used on Runit.

It wasn’t until late 2018, more than 40 years from the start of the nuclear cleanup, that the US Congress passed legislation recognizing military veterans as radiation exposed for the purpose of filing claims for disabilities and medical assistance with the US Veterans Administration. While the legislation was welcome news for those still alive among the 5,600 US military men who participated, it did not extend to the 2,400 civilians who participated alongside the members of the Armed Forces assigned to the cleanup. They are still left out of the picture, as are the many Marshallese who worked at Enewetak during the cleanup program and were, like the American men, exposed to radiation by the nature of their work and movement around seriously contaminated islands.

Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced and helped pass the legislation in late 2018. It requires the Veterans Administration to investigate easing the burden of filing disability claims for veterans who participated in nuclear cleanup activities in Palomares, Spain and on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Currently, these veterans are not presumed to have been previously exposed to radiation when filing claims for disability and medical assistance. Rep. Meng introduced the Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, which will provide healthcare benefits to veterans who participated in the nuclear cleanup of Enewetak Atoll.  


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