Apr. 09, 2007
Copyright Â© Las Vegas Review-JournalRADIATION EXPOSURE
Veteran with skin cancer refuses to give up battle for compensation
By KEITH ROGERS
1||1695732.jpg||Michael Hirschhorn holds a document that illustrates how a radioactive cloud is formed from the strong updrafts that follow a nuclear explosion.||Photo by Samantha Clemens.
Atomic veteran Michael Hirschhorn didn’t give up his fight for compensation when the Department of Veterans Affairs denied his claim for skin cancer.
He refused to quit after a Pentagon agency denied that he’d been exposed to radiation from nuclear blasts set off over the Pacific Ocean in 1962.
And when a veterans law judge finally ruled in his favor only to have the government, in his view, low-ball his compensation award, Hirschhorn battled on.
The 64-year-old former sailor from Las Vegas is still on his quest for just compensation and is one of the relatively few atomic veterans who have successfully navigated the maze of disability paperwork to win an appeal.
Most veterans become discouraged, give up or don’t want to endure the back-and-forth created when their cases are shuttled between different government agencies, Hirschhorn said last week.
Some die before their cases reach the appeals process, he said.
Hirschhorn said he hopes his case will set a precedent for other atomic veterans to follow.
“There’s 500,000 vets out there who are in a lot worse shape because they were exposed to ionizing radiation,” Hirschhorn said. “Our government is lying to them.”
He echoed the point made last month in Las Vegas by R.J. Ritter, national commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans Inc.
Ritter was in Southern Nevada to address an advisory board that makes recommendations on atomic veterans issues to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
In Ritter’s estimation, between 450,000 and 500,000 U.S. military and support personnel were exposed to radiation during atmospheric nuclear weapons tests.
That group includes sailors aboard military vessels and pilots who flew through radioactive clouds.
It also includes the soldiers and Marines who huddled in trenches at the Nevada Test Site, marched through fallout or landed in contaminated areas during parachute jumps.
Some 25,000 claims have been filed by atomic veterans seeking medical care or compensation since the early 1950s.
Ritter said that fewer than 100 claimants have received total compensation and that only 300 to 400 claimants have been given 50 percent of the compensation they sought.
In 2006, Hirschhorn convinced a judge for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in Washington that the Defense Threat Reduction Agency botched its assessment of how much radiation he was exposed to during a series of 1962 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests over the Pacific Ocean in the vicinity of Christmas Island.
He has since launched another appeal, saying a doctor attributes the development of his skin cancer to his Navy service aboard the USS Merrick, which passed through Pacific atomic test sites while returning to the United States from Japan.
Instead of receiving a 10 percent disability payment of $115 per month, Hirschhorn is seeking $900 a month, which represents a 60 percent disability rating.
Hirschhorn also said that payment should be retroactive to cover the five years he has spent proving his case to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
“They do everything they can to stall these cases. … Every time you get one of these (denial) letters, you get kicked in the teeth and you want to give up,” Hirschhorn said. “They set it all up to make sure they can issue a denial.”
In a Friday e-mail, a Defense Threat Reduction Agency spokeswoman said the agency erred when it said the nuclear tests in Hirschhorn’s case were “high altitude” blasts.
If that had been the case, personnel aboard ships passing through the area would have experienced minimal exposure to radiation.
In reality, the tests were conducted as much lower “air bursts” that created strong updrafts. The updrafts, according to Hirschhorn’s citations of government documents, caused widespread distribution of highly radioactive fallout particles.
Nevertheless, Defense Threat Reduction Agency spokeswoman Cheri Abdelnour said the agency stands by its assessment in Hirschhorn’s case because none of the detonations that occurred while the USS Merrick passed through the region “produced fallout that impacted Christmas Island, Johnston Island, or any of the ships supporting the operation.”
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency “radiation dose assessment incorrectly used the term ‘high altitude burst’ to describe an air burst that occurred, in fact, below 100,000 feet,” Abdelnour said in the e-mail. “However, the radiation dose assessment was not based on this terminology, but rather the actual height of the bursts and extensive, empirical mapping and measurements of radioactive fallout.”
Abdelnour said the USS Merrick, to which the veteran was attached, did not experience any significant radioactive fallout.
“We believe the veteran did not receive an appreciable radiation dose,” Abdelnour wrote.
But Veterans Law Judge Warren Rice Jr., who in May issued an eight-page decision on the former sailor’s appeal, found room for doubt after reviewing Hirschhorn’s research disputing the government’s position.
On Thursday, Hirschhorn described how he and the crew of the USS Merrick experienced at least four powerful atmospheric nuclear tests during the summer of 1962, the peak year for U.S. atomic tests.
One, he said, was seen clearly by the crew before dawn.
“When it went off, we saw like it was daylight, bright white light, then it was orange,” Hirschhorn said. “We felt a slight heat wave. Then we were ordered to shower and go above deck and scrub down.”
That nuclear blast, dubbed Bighorn, was set off on June 27, 1962, and produced an energetic yield equivalent to detonating 7.65 million tons of dynamite.
The other 1962 atomic tests Hirschhorn mentioned were Bluestone, conducted on June 30; Sunset, set off on July 10; and Pamlico, detonated on July 11.
The Bluestone detonation produced a fireball 4,980 feet above the Pacific Ocean in the area of Christmas Island. The explosion was low enough to cause a strong updraft and considerable fallout, according to government documents.
In his appeal, Hirschhorn contended the USS Merrick was closer to the nuclear bomb detonations than the government had stated when officials initially concluded that he received no exposure to radiation from fallout.
In her e-mail, Abdelnour said the agency’s radiation dose estimates are performed by contract scientists under the guidance of agency scientists.
During 2002 to 2003, when Hirschhorn’s assessment was conducted, the DTRA contractor was Jaycor Inc. Contract costs for the Nuclear Test Personnel Review Program ranged from $6 million to $7 million annually. About half that amount was spent on radiation dose assessment efforts, Abdelnour said.