Many of the side effects of war go unaddressed by those outside the military and veteran community. Recent veterans have been exposed to deadly chemicals released from burn pits. Vietnam War veterans fought for decades to get recognition of the impacts of exposure to Agent Orange. But finally, there can be some solace for veterans who have been exposed to nuclear radiation.

The first sort of federal acknowledgement of the unfathomable health concerns involved with being in close contact with nuclear waste, radioactive elements, and even nuclear blast testing came in 1990 with the establishment of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Now, with the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, radiation-exposed veterans will be honored with the colloquially named "Atomic Veterans Medal."


H.Amdt.648 to the H.R.5515 requires the Secretary of Defense to design and produce a military service medal to honor retired and former members of the Armed Forces who were exposed to radiation — or, as the amendment calls them, "atomic veterans."

At first glance, this seems like a paltry concession for someone who has lived a lifetime of hardships stemming from irradiation. It is, in essence, a ribbon, a piece of metal, and a paper that says, "that sucks — we're sorry that happened!" That sort of thing is of little importance in the minds of atomic vets.

But it means far more in the bigger picture.

It means that the government is finally saying that being this close to a nuclear explosion is, apparently, "bad for your health"

(US Navy)

Federal acknowledgement is paramount. The fact that, according to the House voting record, 408 congressmen agree that this amendment should be included and that the government should do more for atomic veterans is huge.

Care for atomic vets has been an issue swept under the rug for years. That care was made even more questionable after the National Archives Fire of 1973, which saw the destruction of military personnel files for over 16-18 million veterans in a single night. Because of that fire, many cancer-stricken veterans were denied healthcare as it was impossible to prove that they were, in fact, within the proximity of a nuclear blast.

One fire screwed over 16 million vets well over 45 years later.

(Department of Defense)

The first radiation exposure act gave atomic veterans the ability to receive special, priority enrollment for healthcare services from the VA for radiation-related conditions. The amendment in 2013 allowed even more veterans to be covered by RECA by including veterans who were downwind of nuclear tests. The wording of the medal seems to allow for all veterans who've been affected by radiation in some manner.

This alone is a huge win as it now gives treatment for the veterans who've long been denied access to medical care. With legislation like this receiving overwhelming support, it's only a matter of time before Agent Orange veterans and the Burn Pit veterans also get their acknowledgement.

One hill at a time.

(United States Air Force photo)