- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - He wore thick khaki pants and a heavy cotton shirt, sometimes blue or sometimes green, to work every day.

Donald Miles carried a black metal lunch pail with him when he left home for the Joslyn Manufacturing and Supply Co. on Taylor Street those mornings in the 1940s.

And after spending a day at the furnaces working around uranium - without any protective clothing and before we knew what the material can do to the human body - he’d come home, relax and change clothes, though not right away.

“Who knows what he exposed the house to,” said his daughter, Lee Huddleston, recalling those days.

Like many of his co-workers at the Joslyn site, Miles’ health deteriorated after his time there.

He came home more and more exhausted, Huddleston said. His energy seemed depleted and, after he left, he never was able to keep steady work at other jobs.

Miles died at 80 while living in Alabama in 1998, and his daughter and two sons didn’t think much about the old Joslyn site during the ensuing years.

Until the federal government came calling.

They were told about a program designed specifically for those former workers at Joslyn or their survivors, a program that has so far paid out nearly $8 million to those former workers and their survivors for exposing them to radiation for so long, and they were told they were probably eligible for compensation.

But what it’s turned into is a two-year saga that’s involved tracking down lost medical records, filling out form after form, meeting with government officials, finding out things about their father they wish they never knew or even wanted to know.

“It’s been traumatic,” Huddleston, who is now 70 and lives in Tennessee, told The Journal Gazette (https://bit.ly/1x9ej8J ).

The process to get compensation, after being approached by the government, has been jumping through hoops, she said, with no end in sight.

And so far it hasn’t yielded a single cent.

In 1944, the Joslyn Manufacturing and Supply Co. began work on a contract with the Manhattan Engineering District.

The job: Turn short chunks of uranium into long rods that would help fuel atomic bombs, propelling America into being the world’s first nuclear superpower.

According to federal records, workers at the mill melted uranium billets in a furnace, then extruded the metal into long rods. When the machining was done, they cleaned up the uranium dust with a broom and dustpan.

Huddleston does not know exactly what her father did at the mill during his time there, but she knew he cleaned parts, did work at the furnaces and came into contact with the uranium rods.

Work with the uranium at the site ended in 1952, according to federal records.

During the ensuing years, some former workers developed cancers related to their work at Joslyn, which prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to create a program that would pay them for medical bills they incurred as well as up to $250,000 in compensation.

The federal government began trying to track down former Joslyn employees who worked at the site from 1943 to 1948 a few years ago, which officials at the time said was no easy task.

The Joslyn site itself has changed hands several times during the last few decades, and workers from that time in the 1940s have either moved to other states or are deceased.

But officials found Huddleston and her two brothers - one living in Texas and the other living in Fort Wayne.

All three received letters in January 2012.

The siblings began to talk to each other about their father. The more they talked, the angrier they became about what he went through after his work at Joslyn.

They had never heard of the government program until being contacted, and wanted to know why it had not been created sooner.

“The more we wondered, the more we thought, ‘If it had happened earlier, my dad could’ve benefited from it,’ ” Huddleston said.

“I know to some people they might think that he still lived a long life in spite of the uranium contact for so long,” Huddleston continued. “But he was sick all the time after that work.”

Huddleston’s mother bore the brunt of that sickness, she said, working in a factory for 25 years, providing for the family as well as doing housework.

She ended up in a nursing home before she died at 88 in 2010, making Huddleston think about how it could have been different for her if they had some sort of compensation back then.

What Huddleston and her brothers were told, she said, was that they could be eligible for some money if they produced the proper proof that their father died of any number of certain cancers that could or were probably linked to the work with uranium.

But since Miles died more than 16 years ago, finding medical records proved difficult.

A big hurdle Huddleston ran into was her father’s death certificate - cancer was not among his causes of death listed.

Instead, his death was attributed to strokes and mini-strokes, among other ailments, Huddleston said.

Huddleston knew, though, that her father had lung cancer. While living in a small Alabama town in the 1990s, he needed to be driven to a hospital in a bigger city nearby on a regular basis for radiation treatment.

But that hospital declared bankruptcy several years ago, she said, and she was told any medical records there were long destroyed.

Huddleston reached out to other hospitals in Alabama and even Fort Wayne where her father made visits or was treated for various problems, hoping medical records there would show definitively that he had cancer.

What she found was that many of the hospitals he had visited had long since destroyed their records pertaining to him, since he had not been seen in over a decade, Huddleston said.

Even insurance companies, she said, had no records.

Before a meeting last year with a Department of Labor official who would decide if they could receive compensation, Huddleston and her brothers gathered up as much evidence as they could to show they tried to gather the proper medical paperwork pertaining to their father.

They brought newspaper clippings of the Alabama hospital’s closure and its bankruptcy forms, they told the official of how their father was never the same after working at Joslyn. They told stories of how his health declined and how he developed - unbeknownst to them until long after their father’s death - that he had one testicle removed because of testicular cancer.

“It was draining,” Huddleston said.

Without cancer on the death certificate, though, their case was closed, Huddleston said.

Department of Labor officials did not discuss Huddleston’s case specifically when contacted through several emails, and the director of the program to payout former workers at Joslyn was not available for an interview.

For a long time, Huddleston lost her ambition. Her brothers did, too.

A file of everything she could find on her father sat on her desk, and she went months without opening it again. Still, the itch began to come back. And soon, she was seeing if there was anything else that could be done to reopen her father’s case file.

Now a retired school teacher, Huddleston knew that law in Alabama - where her father died - allowed death certificates to be legally changed or amended by physicians.

She sought out the final doctor who had treated her father. This doctor, Huddleston said, also treated her mother.

It would’ve been nearly 16 years, at least, since he had seen her father, but it had only been roughly four since he had seen her mother. She hoped that maybe he would remember something.

She called first. The doctor said he was sorry, he did not remember treating a Donald Miles.

Huddleston asked for a meeting, and went to the doctor’s office clutching her father’s obituary along with photos of her mother and father.

“That’s when he said he remembered he had lung cancer,” Huddleston said.

The doctor amended Miles’ death certificate to show that he had an official diagnosis of lung cancer, one of the cancers covered by the Department of Labor’s program in paying former Joslyn employees.

Three months ago, the Department of Labor reopened his case.

The Joslyn Manufacturing and Supply Co. no longer exists and the site where uranium rods were once made is now owned by Valbruna Slater Steel Corp.

What was once the steel mill where Miles worked is now demolished.

The site has been declared radiation free, but a lawsuit winding its way through the federal court system as to who is responsible for paying for the cleanup - Joslyn or Valbruna - still puts the old mill in the news from time to time.

Meanwhile, in the past two years, the Department of Labor has paid at least $7.9 million to at least 136 former Joslyn workers or their families, according to government records.

Donald Miles’ children are still not among those.

“Now they’re trying to figure out the percentage of the causation of his lung cancer,” said Huddleston, who noted that her father did indeed smoke but quit in the 1970s.

“We’ve had to jump through so many hoops, it’s unreal,” she continued. “And every time we do, there’s another one.”

“They came to us,” she says.

Which, in many ways, she wishes the government hadn’t.

She would’ve never known the details about her father’s sickness, about his testicular cancer or how much pain he was really in during all those years.

If they hadn’t known, hadn’t been contacted, it would’ve been life, she says. A man got sick and died.

Now, it’s a man worked around uranium, the government for a long time knew it was not good for anyone’s health, but is now more than 50 years after the fact trying to make amends.

Huddleston’s brothers will help her fill out forms when needed, she said, but they’ve lost some of the drive to continue trying to get some sort of monetary compensation for their father.

“They’re just burnt out,” she said.

And for her, she said, it’s not so much about the money.

She remembers her father as a man who worked hard to provide for his family as well as a man who had a temper.

Still, there was a tender side to him, one he showed to her once when she was a little girl and he took her to downtown Fort Wayne, just the two of them.

Miles bought his daughter her first pair of patent leather shoes then, a big deal to her because of the time he took to do it, and she wore those home that day so many years ago.

So she continues on because she wants what’s due her dad.

“I’m going to see this through,” she says.


Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

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