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Radiation-exposed ‘atomic veterans’ can now apply for defense secretary’s honor certificate

A WWII veteran's hat. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall)

Veterans who were exposed to radiation in the military between 1945 and 1992 are eligible to apply for the newly created Atomic Veterans Service Certificate signed by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan.

Application for the certificate is open to retired and former service members, or next of kin in cases of deceased veterans, Defense Department officials said.

DOD tasked the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to manage the certificate program, because it already keeps a database of radiation-exposed veterans, DOD officials said.

According to the DTRA website, during World War II, thousands of service members were involved in the secret program to build an atomic bomb — the same project that DTRA traces its roots back to — known as the Manhattan Project. Thousands more were part of the U.S. occupation of Japan immediately following the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s unconditional surrender. After the war ended, through decades of the Cold War, many more troops were involved in atmospheric and underground testing of nuclear weapons.

Authorized in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019, the AVSC is intended to recognize all veterans who were or could have been exposed to radiation during their service to the nation, the website says.

Atmospheric, Underground Testing

Potentially affected veterans include the original atomic veterans from atmospheric testing conducted from 1945 to 1962, in addition to underground testing conducted from 1951 to 1992.

Issued so DOD can honor radiation-exposed veterans, the certificate does not carry any other value or entitle the bearer to benefits, said Doug Johnson, DOD’s assistant director for military decorations and awards policy.

“[The certificate] provides recognition to those service members who were exposed to radiation while serving in the military,” he said.

“The law that was passed does require the Department of Defense to use the Veterans Affairs definition of a radiation-exposed veteran to make a determination with regard to eligibility for the certificate,” Johnson said. “But the certificate does not entitle a veteran to any kind of compensation or any type of benefit associated with that determination.”

550,000 Veterans May Qualify

DTRA maintains there are about 550,000 veterans that could qualify for the certificate in accordance with defining statutes, noted the agency’s Navy Lt. Lee A. Alleman, military program manager for the nuclear test personnel review and deputy, nuclear survivability division.

“We also estimate that approximately 80,000 of the original cohort – World War II veterans – remain alive out of 493,000 [exposed veterans],” Alleman said in an email message.

To be considered for the certificate, DOD and DTRA officials emphasize that applications must be filed through:

DTRA will keep a historical record of veterans whose military service met the certificate eligibility criteria and were awarded the AVSC.

This press release was originally published by the U.S. Department of Defense.