‘Atomic veterans’ overwhelmingly denied benefits for illnesses related to radiation exposure during service

The Department of Veterans Affairs said it has granted about 570 of 4,100 claims as many radiation-exposed veterans die of cancer and old age.

Kenneth Brownell at his home in Gansevoort, N.Y., on Aug. 15.Richard Beaven for NBC News

Thousands of veterans who say they were sickened by radiation exposure during their military service have been denied federal benefits, the Department of Veterans Affairs said, as cancer and old age whittle the remaining number of survivors.

When the PACT Act was signed last August, expanding benefits to veterans exposed to toxic substances, more than 8,000 people who helped clean up radioactive sites became eligible to apply for monthly disability payments

But a year later, the VA has rejected 86% of claims, according to data obtained by NBC News. The VA said that of the roughly 4,100 processed radiation-related claims, it denied more than 3,500 and granted about 570 from Aug. 10, 2022, to Aug. 10, 2023.

“They’re waiting for us to die,” said Kenneth Brownell, 66, who was one of the first soldiers sent to clean up Enewetak Atoll islands in the Pacific Ocean, where the U.S. conducted 43 nuclear tests from 1948 to 1958. 

Brownell shows his invitation from the White House to attend the PACT Act signing ceremony, as well as the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal he received from the Defense Department.Richard Beaven for NBC News

Many veterans say they face impractical burdens to prove they were exposed to a certain dose of radiation.

On its website, the VA says it recognizes that all cancers, as well as tumors of the brain and the central nervous system, are possibly caused by radiation exposure.

But the agency considers only some types of cancers to be covered as so-called presumptive conditions, including cancers of the bile ducts, bone, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gallbladder, liver, lung, pancreas, pharynx, ovaries, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid and urinary tract.

The VA also covers multiple myeloma, leukemia that isn’t chronic lymphocytic leukemia and lymphomas other than Hodgkin lymphoma.

To qualify for disability compensation, veterans must submit medical records showing they have been diagnosed with at least one of those illnesses, as well as service records that prove participation in one of about a dozen assignments in which there were radiation risks.

Veterans with any other type of cancer or tumor have to provide expert medical reviews and organ-specific radiation dose assessments through the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

But it's "virtually impossible" to prove exposure through radiation dose estimates, said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., an atomic historian, who last month introduced a bill that would lift that burden of proof. 

Titus said the recordings weren't accurate, while Brownell said the equipment used to measure radiation was unreliable.

The first explosion of a hydrogen bomb produced a mushroom cloud at the Enewetak Atoll islands in the Pacific Ocean in 1952.Science & Society Picture Library / SSPL via Getty Images

Brownell was diagnosed in 2001 with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that forms in the white blood cells and affects parts of the body’s immune system. It is considered a presumptive disease, meaning Brownell doesn't have to submit a radiation dose estimate. But Brownell said he hasn't yet received a response from the VA to a claim he filed in January.

Brownell said that when he got to Enewetak in 1977, the equipment used to conduct radiation checks wasn't initially available. And by the time it arrived, he said, most of it was faulty.

"We can’t prove that we were exposed in any way," he said.

The VA said that for cases in which veterans believe faulty or unreliable equipment was used to measure radiation doses, it considers "additional facts," including personal testimonials.

It's unclear whether the total number of VA-approved claims included any of those cases.

The VA said the denials in the first year of the PACT Act mostly came when the agency couldn't establish that the claimed conditions were clinically diagnosed, that they were the result of veterans' service or that they met the criteria for approval.

In a statement, the VA said that it is "committed to providing all radiation-exposed veterans with the health care and benefits they deserve" and that it is "actively studying" their conditions and grant rates.

Meanwhile, the population is only getting older, with the youngest atomic veterans now being 60 years old, according to the National Association of Atomic Veterans, a nonprofit advocacy group. The oldest known survivor is nearly 101.

"Time is not on their side,” Titus said.

A shrinking number of atomic veterans

There are more than 552,000 radiation-exposed veterans in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s database, said a spokesperson for the agency. About 46,000 of them have died, the agency said.

Historically, the government defined "atomic veterans" as former service members who were prisoners of war in Japan, as well as those who served in the post-World War II occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and veterans who participated in atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. Those groups were eligible for benefits.

Leo Feurt, a Navy veteran, still remembers seeing the bones in his arms and hands through his skin, as if in X-ray images, every time he witnessed the detonations of 28 atomic bomb tests in 1958.

“We looked like a bunch of skeletons,” said Feurt, 85. “There was no color in anything. Everything was black and white.”

Feurt said he didn't have on high-density goggles or protective clothing as he watched detonation after detonation in the Pacific from the flight deck of the USS Boxer. “You just had to cover your eyes and ride it out,” he said.

Last year, the PACT Act expanded eligibility to include veterans who were involved in cleanup efforts at Enewetak Atoll, as well as the cleanup of an Air Force B-52 bomber that crashed carrying nuclear weapons off Palomares, Spain, in 1966.

The new law also included veterans who responded to the fire onboard an Air Force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons in Greenland in 1968.

About 6,000 service members worked at Enewetak Atoll, while nearly 1,500 served in Spain and more than 850 responded to the fire in Greenland, said the VA and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Workers sort through the wreckage and collect barrels of contaminated earth during the cleanup of an Air Force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons that crashed off Palomares, Spain, in 1966.AP

Only about 400 are estimated to still be alive, according to the National Association of Atomic Veterans, which conducts membership tallies. Most of the survivors are Enewetak veterans, and many of them have cancer and other radiation-related illnesses, the group said.

Keith Kiefer, the nonprofit group's national commander, said the organization has found only five survivors of the Spain cleanup and none from the Greenland operation.

"We’re losing an average of two to three individuals a month out of that group,” said Kiefer, 66. “Sometimes it’s more; sometimes it’s less.” 

The Virginia chapter of the National Association of Atomic Veterans had about 100 members about 20 years ago. Now there are 20 at most, said Gillie Jenkins, the group’s director of state commanders.

In California, about 70 members have died in the last decade, while New York lost about 60 in the same time frame, other state leaders said.

“There’s not many left now,” said Jenkins, 93.

Brownell, pictured at his New York home, was one of the first U.S. soldiers sent to clean up the Enewetak Atoll islands.Richard Beaven for NBC News

In 2006, Feurt was diagnosed with a lemon-size cancerous tumor on his spine, and he said he suffers from 12 other radiation-related diseases. "Every dang bit of it has been denied," he said.

Feurt said he has appealed multiple times but doesn't have a shred of hope that he will ever win.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department recently distributed commemorative service medals to atomic veterans but noted to recipients that it wouldn't guarantee any federal benefits.

"It looks like something you’d win at a carnival," Feurt said.

“I’ve been fighting this thing for 15 years. There’s nothing I can do about it," he added. "We were guinea pigs."