Veterans who never saw war, claim American soil made them sick
TIBURON, Calif. (KTVU) - They are military veterans, who never saw war, but claim their service on American soil made them sick.
There is a growing organization of so-called "Atomic Veterans" fighting for medical help after they say they were exposed to toxic chemicals and atomic radiation while serving in the armed forces.
Army veteran Daniel Moreska said he had his first seizure 30 years ago. Today, he takes 19 different medications.
“I’ve been diagnosed with COPD, epilepsy, asthma, photosensitive epilepsy, partial epilepsy seizures," said Moreska. Moreska said on June 17, he was newly diagnosed with Severe Spinal Stenosis.
Moreska believes his health problems began with his Army Basic Training. He was stationed for five months in 1983 at Fort McClellan, Alabama.
In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) closed the base and named it a SuperFund site. Fort McClellan tested Agent Orange and Mustard Gas on the base in the 1960s.
PCBs at a nearby Monsanto Plant also posed a health risk, but a minimal one according to the Department of Veteran's Affairs website.
Moreska said the army never told him about any of the risks.
“There [were] a lot of really deep holes and there was water in them," said Moreska.
"Our canteens were empty because we were marching all day and we asked if we could fill our canteens in that water there. And the drill sergeant said ‘yes’”.
Moreska said his training required him to crawl on the ground and march through a waist-deep creek.
"So, you’re constantly in contact with the ground, constantly breathing the air that was so toxic.”
Moreska has a 2015 medical document from Neurosurgeon Michelle Apperson at the VA Northern California Health Care System. She wrote Moreska was exposed to Agent Orange, Dioxin, herbicides, PCBs, and possibly radiation.
The VA benefits office, however, told Moreska it doesn't think his health problems come from his service and denied several claims he made. Dr. Apperson responded to our inquiry by writing that she no longer works for the VA.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Oakland Office responded to our inquiry about Moreska and said his neurosurgeon may have speculated on Moreska's exposures, and that there is no congressional schedule for veterans' compensation for exposure to toxins or PCBs at Fort McClellan.
Moreska is seeking to be declared 100 percent disabled, but said the VA has listed him as no more than 30 percent disabled.
After World War II, military men were sent to witness the greatest, most destructive weapons of the time - Atomic Bombs.
Bill McGee, 92, served in the U.S. Navy. After serving in WWII, he was sent with a fleet of 50 ships to witness explosion tests off Runit Island and Bikini Atolli in 1946.
“You’d close your eyes like this," said McGee as he covered his eyes with both hands.
"You could face the bomb blast, but you really weren’t supposed to see it.”
McGee said you could certainly feel it. The rush of wind and heat from the atomic bomb detonation reached the sailors. McGee said the tests were to see how well US Navy ships could withstand an atomic attack. Several empty ships were stationed close to the explosion site and monitored. He said he was lucky that he wasn't chosen to enter the blast zone the following day.
“They [sailors] were on a ship 10 miles away from the bomb blast, during the bomb drop, but they were sent back the next day when this radiation was everywhere on the ship every nook and cranny," said McGee.
“And then there were the guys who were sent in to wash down the ships to get rid of some of the radiation, to make it safer for more guys to go in. It was very poorly handled.”
His fellow sailors performed these tests wearing only T-shirts and dungarees.
McGee said over time, his fellow shipmates started succumbing to different cancers.
Today, McGee has several melanomas and prostate cancer. He's written a book on his eye witness accounts of the bomb testings titled Operation CROSSROADS - Lest We Forget!
While he's not seeking compensation from the VA, he said other veterans should be getting financial or medical help.
McGee said the atomic test veterans have been largely ignored by the VA for compensation as opposed to Vietnam veterans, because they did not serve in a war.
“I think they’ve [Vietnam veterans] been able to get compensation right from the start fairly easy compared to the radiation sickness from nuclear, because there was a lot more Agent Orange dropped on the troops," said McGee.
Both McGee and Moreska want to know why VA doctors never tracked veterans' exposure after service and would like to see more research committed to testing veterans for harmful radiation or chemical weapons exposure.
There are veterans groups committed to raising awareness about veterans with chronic illnesses that may be related to active duty. One such group is Operation Stand Together.