Congresswoman Grace Meng joined two senators to reintroduce on Tuesday a bipartisan bill providing healthcare benefits to veterans who were exposed to high levels of deadly radiation when assigned to clean up nuclear testing sites in Enewetak Atoll on the Marshall Islands during the late 1970s.
The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act (H.R. 632) is named after the late Congressman Mark Takai, a veteran of the U.S. Army and Hawaii Army National Guard, who passed away in 2016. Takai originally introduced the bill in the 114th Congress.
Since then, Meng has been fighting for passage of the bill in the 115th Congress, where it has received 238 co-sponsors.
“This commonsense bill will provide much needed care to the veterans who participated in nuclear cleanup of Enewetak Atoll,” Meng said. “These veterans served our nation with honor and distinction. It is long past time that we address the failure of our system to help them; it is simply the right thing to do.”
Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands was the site of more than 40 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. The service members who participated in its nuclear cleanup between 1977 and 1980 suffer from high rates of cancers due to their exposure to radiation and nuclear waste, but are currently unable to receive the same treatments and service-related disability presumptions that other “radiation-exposed veterans” receive.
According to National Association of Atomic Veterans National Commander, Keith Kiefer, about 4,000 veterans were a part of the project.
“Of these, we have found about 10 percent alive. Most of the survivors have cancer(s); at least one suffers with six unique cancers. These men are in their late 50s and 60s,” said Kiefer.
Kiefer added, “Despite contamination of the islands with plutonium, strontium, cesium and other toxic materials from years of testing 43 atomic bombs, the veterans did not have proper PPG (Personal Protective Gear) or monitoring during removal and transportation of approximately 110,000 cubic yards contaminated soil, these bureaucracies continue to deny any exposure and proper care associated with that.”
Minnesota Senator Tina Smith and North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis introduced the legislation in the Senate.
Smith noted that one of the most solemn duties is to take care of the men and women who served in the armed forces, ensuring they receive the healthcare they need both during and after their service.
“The Americans who cleaned up the radiation-exposed Marshall Islands — where more than 40 nuclear tests took place in the 20th century — have been fighting for proper care for a long time, and it’s past time we stand up for them. I’m standing up by continuing to work on this commonsense, bipartisan fix that’s long overdue,” said Smith.