Monday, December 1, 2008

An Atomic Test Veteran Gets Disability Restored

It sounds like a Monty Python routine.

  • Order young soldiers to put on goggles and hop into in a slit trench
  • Set off an atomic bomb
  • Order the young soldiers to walk to the crater, M-1s at the ready, simulating an attack
  • When they come back, burn their uniforms, give them a good shower, and swear them to silence.
That was "Operation Teapot" - but we haven't got to the punch line yet. Years later, when they get strange cancers, give them 30% disability; but when the cancer goes into remission, take away the disability.

What's a veteran to do?

Some probably just die. Veterans are not entitled by law to assistance in filing their claims, and there's no reason that a typical American citizen would be especially skilled at maneuvering the mazes of the VA claim process. As reported in VA Watchdog, a study by University of Illinois professor Melinda F. Podgor found that 90 percent of disability claims by atomic veterans have been denied by the VA.

And there's always the chance that the VA might just shred some documents.

But some atomic veterans persist and recently, Army veteran Joe Cohen got his disability reinstated, as reported by Richard Liebson at

"... Five decades after Army veteran Joe Cohen took part in atomic bomb tests in Nevada, and five years after the Department of Veterans Affairs stopped the disability checks he had been receiving as compensation for the cancer those tests caused, the retired transportation executive has been informed that, at long last, his appeal has been approved.

Cohen was a private in an ordnance company in 1955 when his unit was tapped to participate in Operation Teapot, a series of atomic tests at Camp Desert Rock in Nevada. Twice that year he and his buddies huddled in trenches while atomic devices were detonated. The soldiers wore no special equipment other than the goggles each man was handed on the way to their foxholes.

In 1996 Cohen, like many of his fellow "atomic veterans," was diagnosed with hairy-cell leukemia caused by radiation exposure. He filed a claim with the VA and began receiving 30 percent disability checks. The checks stopped in 2003, when the VA informed him that because his cancer was in remission, he was no longer entitled to the benefit.

Cohen appealed, and the long wait began.

"They never took any action," he said. "I'm sure they just hoped that I would give up and go away. Unfortunately, it seems like that's how the VA handles things. But it's not in my personality to quit when I'm right. Our government has an obligation to veterans and their families, and I wasn't going to let the VA shirk their responsibility."

Cohen started writing to the VA on a regular basis, building a file of more than 200 documents that he said "show how they were just giving me the runaround."

He contacted U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Reps. Nita Lowey and John Hall, who began pressuring the VA to hear his appeal. In September, The Journal News published an article about his plight. That same week, Schumer's office informed Cohen that a hearing on his appeal had finally been scheduled.

On Tuesday came a letter from Joseph Collagi of the VA's New York regional office, notifying Cohen that he had won his appeal.

"I don't feel elated, I feel exhausted,'' he said. "It's like after five years a weight has been lifted from me. But I'm just one guy; There are thousands of veterans out there who are suffering while the VA drags its feet. I think that if it wasn't for pressure from the elected officials and the publicity from the story in The Journal News, I'd still be waiting. It shouldn't have to come to that."

With a growing backlog of disability claims, the VA has been under fire in recent months from veterans groups and public officials for its lack of efficiency. In September, Hall said the VA had more than 830,000 claims pending and that without dramatic changes the number could top 1 million next year.

Cohen said he hopes to work with veterans groups and elected officials to keep prodding the VA on behalf of other veterans with outstanding claims.

"We can't let up,'' he said. "We have to keep fighting. We can't say we've won until the VA has corrected its problems and is as responsive as it should be."

The full article about Cohen is at

There's More To Be Done

It's important to remember that Operation Teapot was far from the only opportunity our troops had to be injured by radiation in the course of duty. Operation Crossroads involved perhaps 37,000 troops for whom getting a disability rating can be a problem. According to Ray Beatty, a sailor who spent a lot of time cleaning up contamination with rags, his claim is on its fourth appeal; see "Atomic vet recalls 1946 bomb tests — and dirty aftermath".

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has a rather sanguine Operation TEAPOT fact sheet which should be carefully parsed; it does have a helpful note:

For information related to claims, call the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at 1-800-827-1000 or the Department of Justice (DOJ) or 1-800-729-7327. For test participation verification or radiation dose reconstruction, call the Nuclear Test Personnel Review (NTPR) program at 1-800-462-3683.
The National Association of Atomic Veterans may be a helpful resource for persons seeking to help veterans file disability claims based on exposure to atomic tests.

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