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The military sent him to clean up after atomic bombs — now it won't cover his health care

As far as Ernest Davis II knows, he’s the only living Delaware veteran of the Enewetak Atoll atomic debris cleanup mission. 

The Dover resident was barely out of his teens when he, along with about 6,000 other  U.S. servicemen, arrived in the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s.  

“It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Davis said. “It was just out of this world.” 

A few decades earlier, during the Cold War era, the United States had conducted dozens of nuclear tests on and around the Marshall Islands, including 43 on Enewetak Atoll. 

When the Marshallese people demanded the United States clean up the radioactive waste, Congress sent soldiers to do the work. 

Between 1977 and 1980, Davis and other servicemen “scraped,” or dug up, 73,000 cubic meters of soil contaminated by the tests. They then deposited it into a crater, known as Runit Dome or Cactus Crater, which was capped with thick cement. 

“We were told we weren’t in any danger other than (equal to) an X-ray a month, or something — and that was so far from the truth,” Davis said. 

Declassified danger

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, Enewetak Atoll atomic debris cleanup veterans "wore protective clothing and radiation dose measuring devices when needed, and had regular radiation checks."

They "encountered low levels of radiological contamination, and have a low risk of health problems."

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Dave Phillips found otherwise when he interviewed the veterans and reviewed declassified government documents for a 2017 New York Times article titled "Troops who cleaned up radioactive islands can't get medical care."

The article details what it says was the U.S. government’s failure to protect soldiers like Davis from radiation during their time in the Pacific, as well as to provide for them after their exposure allegedly caused health problems and, sometimes, killed them. 

Professional contractors were recommended to conduct the cleanup, according to The Times, but Congress ordered cost-cutting measures and sent soldiers like Davis instead — soldiers with very little knowledge of the hazards the job entailed.  

"I knew a little, but I had no idea the extent of it," Davis said.

He was somewhat fortunate in that Davis was on an administrative detail in Enewetak, meaning he didn’t do as much digging as others. In his nine months there, his main duties included typing, but he also delivered mail to outlying island bases and sometimes assisted with laundry. 

“They would just drop (the laundry) in there, with all the dust, the dirt, the particles; it all came up. At the time, we didn’t know anything about that,” Davis said. 

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Though the government hailed the extreme safety measures it said were in place, the soldiers told The Times a different story. Very little protective gear was available to them, they said. In fact, most of them rarely ever wore shirts.

Davis concurred. The only time he saw anyone don protective gear was for a photo op, he said. 

The men doing the digging were scanned each evening for plutonium particles, Phillips wrote, and often had high readings. Soldiers told The Times those readings were never recorded.

Enewetak Atoll is a circular ring of islands surrounding a lagoon, where Davis said soldiers were often disposing of things like equipment and damaged munitions.

At the same time, he and the other soldiers swam and fished there. They drank and bathed in desalinated water from the lagoon, Davis said. They ate seafood taken from the lagoon and the waters surrounding the atoll. 

Effects of radiation exposure

Proving the soldiers' health problems are related to Enewetak, however, is difficult due to the lack of data on participants. 

When The New York Times attempted to obtain “nasal swabs and urine samples (collected) during the cleanup to measure how much plutonium troops were absorbing,” the military said it couldn’t find them. 

Many of the surviving soldiers have health problems ranging from cancer to infertility, and they believe it’s due to radiation exposure at Enewetak. They communicate via a Facebook group, Enewetak Atoll Atomic Debris Cleanup Veterans. 

“We’ve only found about 1,000 of us still alive,” Davis said. “And I'm planning another funeral.” 

Davis has suffered a bout of cancer, he said, and a slew of bone issues requiring surgery: an ankle reconstruction, two knee replacements, a hip replacement and three shoulder surgeries.  

While military health care recognizes and fully covers radiation-related maladies for those who participated in atomic experiments, it does not fully cover those who cleaned them up. Davis and other atomic debris cleanup veterans were awarded Humanitarian Service Medals but not, in his opinion, adequate health coverage. 

“Many of the ones that have passed on actually lost their livelihood because of us not having any coverage or copays,” Davis said. 

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He and other cleanup veterans have lobbied Congress to change that for decades. 

One of the latest congressional attempt to help atomic debris cleanup veterans is the Honoring Our Promise To Address Comprehensive Toxics Act Of 2021, introduced in May by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif. 

Davis is a board member of Children of Atomic Veterans, a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of radiogenic cancers and the genetic impacts of radiation exposure. 

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He turns 63 on Nov. 5, and on that day, he plans to be in Washington representing Children of Atomic Veterans, helping to present a painting to officials from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. 

The painting, “Unintended Consequences” by Victoria Moore, depicts “Lady Justice standing atop the radioactive dome with her blindfold raised, no longer able to blindly look away from the injustice.” 

“That’s about the best birthday present I could ask for,” Davis said.