- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

TORONTO — In 1957, Canadian Cpl. Robert Henderson was given a gas mask and told to turn around while an atomic bomb was detonated 20 miles from his U.S. military survey site near Nevada’s Yucca Flats.

“I could see through my arm. I could see through the head of the man I was facing,” Mr. Henderson recalled recently. He said the sky turned pink and “after five or six seconds, we turned around and watched a huge mushroom cloud forming with the most brilliant colors I’ve ever seen — bright orange, red and a brilliant mauve.”

For years, Mr. Henderson and his fellow soldiers were barred from discussing their experiences, even with their doctors. But with that ban lifted, they have gone to court to seek damages for radiation-related sicknesses, claiming that Canada refuses them compensation and medical benefits.

Between 1946 and 1963, up to 1 million U.S. troops, joined by much smaller numbers from allies such as Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand were exposed to radiation from atomic tests, according to an association of U.S. atomic veterans.

Many, such as Mr. Henderson and about 1,100 other Canadian soldiers and contractors were brought in to test the effects of radiation from nuclear explosions — the idea being to study the conditions that would prevail on a battlefield during a nuclear war.

The soldiers waited in trenches, wearing field clothes, a gas mask and a radiation detector similar to an unexposed film negative pinned to their clothes.

Mr. Henderson said a bomb was dropped from a tower.

Then, he and four other Canadian soldiers in his squad were hit with the forward force of the explosion, the searing heat and finally a powerful “suck-back” of the air into the blast site so strong it could knock a man over, he recalled.

A statement submitted by the Canadian Atomic Veterans Association in support of their court case says that in 1953, U.S. Gen. Matthew Ridgway granted permission to have the Canadians stationed “as close as possible to the detonating bombs.”

Mr. Henderson said he witnessed and surveyed about 20 atomic blasts by walking as close as 500 yards — just over a quarter mile — from the blast point of the just-exploded atomic device or older “cold” blast sites to measure radiation.

Afterward, the men took tent showers and disposed of their clothes but not their gas masks.

They were often ordered to sleep near the blast site so they could begin their grueling measurement work early the next day, he said. The work continued for up to 10 hours a day, every other day, in the 110-degree temperature of the Nevada desert over a period of weeks, he said.

Then, Mr. Henderson and the others carried their radioactive contamination home to their families.

Like his American colleagues, Mr. Henderson had to keep his assignment a secret or face prison time, so until the law expired he could not reveal the cause of numerous radiation-related ailments even to his doctor.

Today, he suffers from blisters on his heart, has lost one kidney and has been treated several times for different cancers. His two daughters developed cancer in their 20s. Now 73, Mr. Henderson, says the Canadian government wants the atomic veterans to just die off.

Mr. Henderson said the government had fought the men over medical pensions for years. Last year, the then defense minister offered them a special medical pension but nothing for their families and no admission of responsibility.

“He said if we didn’t like the government’s deal we could take them to court,” Mr. Henderson recalled.

When he and the Canadian Atomic Veterans Association filed a lawsuit last month, the government took notice.

The current Canadian defense minister, Peter MacKay, phoned Mr. Henderson and promised to look into the issue.

No one from Canada’s defense department would comment for this article, but its media office sent a one-sentence reply to a question, promising it will have an announcement “soon.”

Tony Merchant, attorney for the veterans association, said both the Canadian and U.S. governments knew the dangers of bomb-test radiation exposure — U.S. Atomic Energy Commission personnel there wore radiation “space suits” — but didn’t tell the soldiers.

Now, the veterans are suffering from “high incidences of cancer, diabetes — a whole series of signature diseases” caused by overexposure to deadly radiation, Mr. Merchant said.

Mr. Merchant said this is one of three veterans’ lawsuits he is handling. The others involve testing poison gas on soldiers and spraying deadly Agent Orange, Agent Purple and Agent White over Canadian soldiers and civilians.

In 1988, American atomic veterans were given the option of accepting $75,000 as a form of compensation, said R.J. Ritter, national commander of the U.S. National Atomic Veterans Association.

But, Mr. Ritter told The Washington Times, the aging veterans had to fill out a 14-page form to qualify and, even then, those who received the lump sum had a like amount deducted from their military disability pay.

Until Congress lifted the ban in 1993 on discussing those missions, atomic veterans “were sworn to total secrecy,” Mr. Ritter told the Las Vegas Review-Journal during a convention of atomic veterans last year.

“Secrecy. That’s the big issue. With secrecy and deniability, how can you go to the VA and seek a claim?” he said at the time.

Out of about 25,000 claims that atomic veterans filed for medical care or compensation since the early 1950s, fewer than 100 claimants have received total compensation, and only 300 to 400 have 50 percent compensation, Mr. Ritter told the Las Vegas newspaper.

According to the U.S. atomic veterans’ Web site, about 1 million American civilians and military personnel were involved in nuclear weapons tests from 1945 to 1963.

Atomic veterans from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand who took part in these exercises have all battled to get compensation, Mr. Ritter said.

So far as he knows, the only country making it easy for victims of military blast radiation to get compensation is Japan.

Japan, he said, plans to stop forcing victims of the World War II atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to prove their diseases were caused by radiation.

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