This the first of a series of three articles which covers the experiences of American servicemen

Conspiracy of silence: Veterans exposed to atomic tests wage final fight

Published: June 16, 2019

This is the first part of a three-part series looking at the plight of veterans exposed to atomic radiation testing. The second part detailed the multiple types of exposure vets have had to endure. The third was about how the dangerous cleanup scarred troops for life.

WASHINGTON – When Lincoln Grahlfs reported to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California, he was suffering from a strange abscess on his face, a 103-degree fever and an abnormal white blood cell count.

The symptoms demanded an unorthodox treatment: A doctor shot the Navy sailor’s face with X-rays with only a shield to cover his eyes.

Soon after, the abscess cleared.

“That was the hair of the dog that bit you,” the doctor told him.

It was the spring of 1947. Grahlfs believed he heard a coded message in the doctor’s words: He knew servicemembers were getting sick from a massive, secret U.S. government project.

In his 20s, the petty officer first class participated in Operation Crossroads in the Pacific Ocean, the first U.S. atomic bomb tests since the nuclear weapon attacks of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Over the next seven decades, more mysterious illnesses surfaced for Grahlfs and the generations who followed.
“We were experimental subjects who did not give our advised consent to be experimental subjects,” said Grahlfs, 96, a retired sociology professor and author of the book “Voices From Ground Zero: Recollections and Feelings of Nuclear Test Veterans.”

At least 200,000 U.S. troops participated in the tests and cleanup operations during World War II and later in the Pacific Ocean, the Nevada desert, New Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. They took the human brunt of deadly ionizing radiation that contaminated nearby lands, water and communities.

Even today, the wide-ranging implications of hundreds of tests conducted from the 1940s until the 1960s and cleanup operations that followed in the late 1970s has yet to be fully understood. In all, the U.S. has conducted more than 900 such tests.

Until 1996, the atomic vets were sworn to silence, forced to keep their burdens from their families, their friends and doctors. They had limited records and medical help for their illnesses, and faced a threat of prison if they revealed the secret too soon.

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