Several decades ago, during the darkest days of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, the U.S. military tested more than 1,000 nuclear weapons in the deserts of Nevada and the waters of the Pacific. Many of the thermonuclear detonations involved the presence of large numbers of soldiers, sailors and Marines, who began to think of themselves as "guinea pig ground grunts."
It's a largely forgotten part of American history, mostly because the government didn't want it known. In today's world, it can be difficult to fathom using regular troops, given essentially no protection, as test subjects in an experiment in how to take advantage of the post-nuclear bomb drop.
"These guys were sworn to secrecy," said R.J. Ritter, national commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans. "For the official record, it didn't happen. They were told by a CID officer, 'What you saw and heard here today didn't happen.' Now after all these years they're free to tell their story, but they are hard-pressed to find someone old enough, including in the military, to understand that it happened."
All told, about 400,000 Americans would be classified as "atomic veterans," about half of whom served in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during occupation duty in the late 1940s. The rest were exposed during aboveground nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1962. After 1962, the military detonated nuclear weapons underground because of airborne contamination that eventually sickened thousands of civilian "downwinders" in Nevada, Utah, Arizona and the Marshall Islands.
Some of the veterans, as well as the civilians, died prematurely, some came down with cancers, some had children with genetic deformities. VA officials, however, say that only 1,500 veterans registered exposure at or above 5 rem, considered the occupational limit for a year.
"A majority of individuals, even if they were in those tests, did not get exposed to a high level of radiation," said Dr. Paul Ciminera, director of the environmental agents service with the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington.