Today’s veteran: Harry Daniel, 65
Born: Charleston, S.C.
Service: Army, four years active duty, one year Army Reserve
Duties: Infantry; operations officer
Recognitions: Humanitarian Service Medal; Overseas Service Ribbon; Army Commendation Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Parachute Badge
Duty stations: Enewetak Atoll; Hawaii; Fort Benning
His story: Harry Daniel wants to know how many of the 8,033 men are still alive who were involved in the failed attempt to remove contaminated soil from 21 islands in Enewetak Atoll in the late 1970s.
He believes he is one of about 450 known survivors who were part of the three-year cleanup that started in 1977 to remove nuclear contamination from the atoll, part of the Marshall Islands chain in the Pacific.
The atoll was the site of 43 nuclear test blasts, including the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb, which left a mile-wide crater.
Daniel said he had no idea about the risks he and others faced while serving as part of the cleanup crew.
“Nobody knew what impact radiation had on people,” he said.
Daniel accepted an officer’s commission in the Army after earning a degree in building construction. He was assigned to an infantry unit in Hawaii two years before he was sent to Enewetak Atoll.
He was given a 90-minute presentation about his duties and the potential risks from the cleanup when he arrived. The goal was to make the islands safe enough for the native population to return.
“We were told we were protected,” Daniel said. “What they didn’t tell us is plutonium has a half life of 24,000 years. I trusted our government when they put us in the middle of a blast zone.”
Most people worked without safety gear such as respirators and special clothing as they operated heavy equipment to remove contaminated soil from 21 of the islands in the atoll.
“We were right between the sites of 31 blasts,” he said. “I feel betrayed. We scraped up 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil.”
Daniel said he hasn’t experienced health problems from his exposure, but he is concerned about his future.
“Some of these guys have had four different types of cancer,” he said. “You never know when the switch is going to flip on you. These guys, they’re worried about their DNA.”
One island will not be fit for habitation for 240,000 years, he said.
Men involved with the cleanup have been trying to get the Department of Defense to classify them as radiation workers, which would make them eligible for treatment for a wide variety of cancers.
“They were supposed to be radiation controlled areas. Now, when it’s all over, they don’t call us radiation workers,” he said. “If they did, they would be covered for every type of cancer you can get.”
Despite his concerns, Daniel said he doesn’t regret his time in the Army.
“I still have a positive view of the military,” he said. “I hate what they did to my guys. Why aren’t we atomic vets? That’s all we’re asking for.”
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