Atomic Veterans come to Manchester

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MANCHESTER — For the countless `atomic veterans' exposed to radiation in the line of duty, it has been a long and winding road to recognition.

Two of these men shared their experiences with a captive audience at the Manchester Community Library on Wednesday night, alongside a physicist involved in the development of the hydrogen bomb in the 1950's.

These men were brought together by Garry DuFour, of Dorset, a Vietnam veteran himself. A former employee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, DuFour has made it his personal mission to collect and share the stories of these veterans.

This passion arose slowly following the egregious government denial and oversight that DuFour witnessed during his time at the VA, resulting in the widespread suffering and death of veterans exposed to radiation.

DuFour was finally spurred to action in the face of further degradation denial from a close friend.

"Last fall, a former great friend said to me `Gary, people don't care about you being a Veteran and they don't care about atomic veterans,'" said DuFour. "Here's what I did - you're part of it."

Today, Dufour is working to compile this testimony into a documentary dubbed Atomic Veterans Speak to shed light on the endless toil and trauma that these soldiers have struggled with. DuFour has also collected extensive letters and documents regarding the `atomic veterans,' which were copied during his time at the VA and stowed away for 33 years before being made public.

"I want to show in the documentary the cancers and illnesses that these Veterans have faced," said DuFour. "I'm trying to bring recognition, respect, and honor to these courageous heroes."

The firsthand accounts from these Veterans were preceded on Wednesday night by Dr. Kenneth Ford, a scientist who helped create the first hydrogen bomb and recently published his book, "Building the H-Bomb: A Personal History."

Ford, now in his nineties, was driven by both patriotism and pragmatism when he signed on to create one of the deadliest weapons known to man.

"My motivation to go was simply that the world would be a safer place if the United States acquired a hydrogen bomb before the Soviet Union did," said Ford, highlighting the tensions that arose in the early years of the Cold War.

In the years following his work in the weapons program, Ford evolved into a staunch opponent of nuclear armament.

"My change of heart regarding the whole nuclear enterprise came in 1960's during the Vietnam War," said Ford. "I developed a feeling that this country was, after all, not so much more trustworthy in international spheres or with weapons of great power."

Even in his old age, Ford has been a loud voice in the debate over nuclear weapons, having a letter to the editor of the New York Times published this past February.

"Over the years I came to believe, increasingly, that the correct number of nuclear weapons in the world should be zero," said Ford, sharing a touching moment with the men most impacted by his scientific achievements. "Physicists already knew of the danger of radiation and exposure, but we were not really concerned yet with the effects on populations."

For the veterans sitting beside him, the physical effects of radiation have become painfully clear. Still, many of these `atomic veterans' have faced difficulty obtaining V.A. health care.

"Atomic veterans hold the burden of proof, not the VA or the Government," said DuFour. "That's incredible."

For 81 year old Hank Bolden of Connecticut, access to health care has proved difficult. In the years following his exposure to radiation, Bolden suffered a bevy of illnesses including multiple myeloma, bladder cancer, subcapsular cataracts, and non-malignant fibroid disease. Though he was told that he would not survive beyond 1995, he is still standing today.

Though Bolden's physical suffering cannot be denied, the veteran was required to pay for his own lie detector test to prove to the V.A. that he had actually been exposed to radiation during his service.

For the veteran, the memories of this experience cannot be forgotten.

"There are people who were exposed to radiation that could put their hands over their eyes and see the bones in their hand. There were those who had flesh dripping off of their bodies," said Bolden. "Fortunately, I was in a fox hole when the bomb went off and all I remember feeling is the heat from the blast and then the dust. Then after, we were told to get out of the fox hole and march to ground zero where the actual explosion happened."

Bolden and his fellow soldiers were called back from their march, as the ground had proved too blistering to traverse. Returning to their barracks, Bolden and his fellow soldiers cleaned one another with a broom.

"Not really the way to do it," added Bolden.

Ed Kohn, an 88 year old veteran from Plainfield, Mass., shared a similar story.

"I came out of the blackness of a five-foot-deep trench while overhead in the far distance was the trail of a bomber that had actually dropped an A-bomb the size of the Hiroshima blast," said Kohn. "Facing downward in the darkness, suddenly time stopped. When the bomb exploded the flash of white light was like a great torrent of whitewash that took all images away. You couldn't discern you feet or any other characteristics after that flash. I can feel it all again."

Kohn has since suffered from bone growth on his spine among other injuries, and believes that the infertility faced by both of his daughters is also due to his exposure to radiation.

"The number of victims of these atomic experiments is more than just those of us that are wounded directly, the greater number is the people who never happened," said Kohn. "The people who are not on this earth because of the atomic damage. Let us be mindful of that as we look at the overall cost."

As these men highlighted, the disastrous impact of nuclear weaponry begins long before a bomb is used in warfare. Perhaps more tragic is the resistance and disrespect that these veterans have faced from the government that put them in harm's way to begin with.

"We lost many atomic veterans that never got health care because it was a confidential and top secret experiment in New mexico, Arizona, and the atolls of the South Pacific," said DuFour. "I have two gentlemen here who did cleanup of the atomic waste in the late 70's early 80's, and worked with Agent Orange that was just brought to these islands and thrown in the ground."

Following the discussion with Ford, Bolden, and Kohn, members of a new generation of `atomic veterans' spoke to the audience during the question and answer period.

"For these veterans that we sent out to Enewetak Atoll, they were exposed to not only the radiation, but they were exposed to certain chemicals, and they couldn't talk about it until 1996 to anyone," said Terry Hamrick of the National Association of Atomic Veterans. "And now we're having a fight with the VA which requires a change to Title 38 to include the Enewetak Atoll."

Hamrick urged those in attendance to call their senators and representatives in support of this change.

"In the eight years we've had our Facebook page, we have found 566 of the men surviving. We have an obituary page that grows more and more every month," said Veteran John Laramie. "Some of these men came home from Enewetak and within nine months they had children. Some of these children are dying in the last few years of cancer as well."

Hamrick and Laramie have confronted that same callousness from the U.S. government that has placed the burden of proof on veterans themselves. Through the National Association of Atomic Veterans, these men are working to not only share the stories of their fellow soldiers, but bring them long overdue justice as well.

Unfortunately, for both generations of atomic veterans, there is still a long march to justice ahead.

For more information on the National Association of Atomic Veterans visit www.naav.com.

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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