Thank you, forgotten Atomic Veterans


Augusta Gazette

Memorial Day is a solemn day set aside for us to remember the courage and sacrifice of the men and women that served our country. Every day that we live with freedom at home is a day made possible by these brave soldiers and airmen.

Gary Thornton of Leon has been working hard to bring honor and remembrance to our nation's forgotten veterans. His mission is limited specifically to saying "Thank You" in an appropriate way to those military personnel that participated in 235 Atmospheric and Underwater Atomic Tests conducted between 1945 and 1963. They are known as "Atomic Veterans."

Thornton, a 26-year veteran of the United States Navy, a Vietnam veteran was assigned duty aboard the U.S.S. Engage, a minesweeper. The minesweeper provided combat radar patrol services and usually stayed in shallow waters close to the shoreline.

Thornton and several of his fellow crew members were "volunteered" to participate in a top secret project that would make history. They were also instructed to sign a document stating that whatever they witnessed, saw, or heard would not be revealed for 20 years under the penalty of execution and/or life imprisonment. The government was serious.

Thornton had read articles on the atomic bombs dropped in Japan, but knew very little about atomic testing.

The volunteers had questions, but weren't told much. They did learn that they would be decked out in some kind of protective gear while they witnessed nuclear detonations — with nothing to worry about. They lay on their stomachs on the deck, folded their arms, rested their foreheads on their arms with their legs crossed. They were told not to look directly at the fireball at first.

Everyone else was sealed inside the ships and in underground bunkers on the island when the detonations occurred.

Thornton witnessed eight detonations in 1962 off of Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.

For many of the participants it would take years before the debilitating effects of the radiation exposure would become apparent. The U.S. government remains reluctant to acknowledge the health problems created by the atomic tests.

"Thousands of veterans have died while they begged for medical help. The government has never admitted that subjecting them to atomic radiation causes all different kinds of cancer," Thornton said.

He also explained that not only can the veteran expect severe health problems, but their children and grandchildren can also be plagued with health issues.

In order to be compensated, a veteran must be certified by a VA doctor, which means the veteran must have proof of their assignment or participation withing the federal statues recorded to qualify as an Atomic Veteran. Due to the Atomic Secrets Act, there were no entries made in the service jackets, medical records, or orders of the Atomic Veterans, thus making it impossible to become "certified."

The Atomic Secret Act was finally lifted in 1996 — not 20 years, but 51 years after being imposed, and the veterans were allowed to verbally discuss their experiences.

"And because so much emphasis was put on the severity of breaking the 20 year imposed threat, there are many older survivors that are still afraid to say anything for the fear of being punished," Thornton continued, "It's a national disgrace. I just can't stand to see any more of these people die. . .they're dying from all sorts of cancers and their spouses and children have nothing to show for their service . . . they're not even mentioned in the history books."

Thornton believes the Atomic Veterans were America's atomic guinea pigs and kept away from the public.

"Now the U.S. has the safest nuclear generating power plants. The technology is modern and safe. We have x-rays, MRIs, sonograms — we provided our country with answers . . . we put an end to the Korean War. MacArthur had three atomic bombs in Korea and when Korea found out, they backed off. Kennedy had the upper hand in Cuba because of the bomb. We have the safest nuclear aircraft carriers and Trident submarines — still derived from what we provided."

"These veterans had no idea how the radiation would affect them . . . none of us knew. We were 18 and 19 years old and following orders. We're dying by the thousands and still no recognition," he continued, "There's really no deep resentment — some are just deeply wounded for being forgotten."

In 2003 Thornton and Larry Halloran began working towards getting recognition for the Atomic Veterans.

In 1982 there were over 850 Atomic Veterans in Kansas. Today there are only 101.

In 2004, former State Representative Everett Johnson of Augusta an Atomic Veteran, as well, helped get a resolution adopted to recognize and honor Kansas Atomic Veterans, which led to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius presenting a Certificate of Recognition to each known Atomic Veteran from Kansas.

"We couldn't have done it without Everett and credit must go to Governor Sebelius, too. She has staunch views on Kansas veterans incomparable to anyone else . . . she knew nothing about Atomic Veterans and after we addressed her and explained the situation, she agreed to officially recognized them. Kansas is the only state that has done this. The Governor is the only political figure I know at state or federal level that has done this," Thornton advised.

A day of celebration and honor was held in Topeka, but over 50 percent of the Atomic Veterans were too ill or too old to attend the special event. Those that couldn't attend received their certificates in the mail.

In 20007 the Kansas Legislature adopted resolution HCR 5018, introduced by Kansas Representative Ed Trimmer of Winfield, and co-sponsored by Representative David Crum of Augusta, encouraging the President and United States Congress to honor our nation's Atomic Veterans with a special Atomic Veterans Service Medal. Kansas Governor Sebelius hand-carried the resolution to Washington D.C. and presented it to Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Also in 2007, U.S. Congressional representatives from Kansas, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Rep. Nancy Boyda, Rep. Dennis Moore and Rep. Jerry Moran joined together and introduced HR3471, the "Atomic Veterans Medal Act of 2007" in the U.S. House of Representatives. Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback introduced the sister bill S2218 in the U.S. Senate.

The bills are in their third committee and hopes are they get passed before this 110th Congress finishes its second session.

"If it doesn't happen now, it may never happen," Thornton said.

And during the recent legislative session, Kansas State Reps. Ed Trimmer, Winfield, and David Crum, Augusta, co-sponsored legislation to name a portion of Highway 400 in honor of the Atomic Veterans. The Kansas Legislature adopted HB2659 designating a portion of U.S. Highway 400 as the "Atomic Veterans Memorial Highway" and in April Governor Sebelius signed it into law. The stretch of Highway 400 involved begins at Augusta and extends to the eastern edge of Butler County. The section of highway was chosen because it is close to Thornton's home in Leon.

Although approximately $1,300 is needed to pay for the new highway signs, Thornton is optimistic that some organizations will take on the worthy project of raising the needed money.

"Without the support and voice of the people, all this work will go down the drain. We just want everyone to be aware of the Atomic Veterans. We seek no apologies or justification of the testing. It is the strength and devotion to duty of our shipmates all who participated in the testing that we wish to see recognized. They deserve nothing less than an Atomic Test Service Medal in their honor," Thornton said.

Editor's note: Thornton is a 1961 graduate of Peabody High School. In a recent conversation he noted that ". . .if this bill isn't brought up on the floor of the house before the end of the 110th congressional session (sometime near the end of November, 2008), it will fail." Thornton is asking that readers visit the atomic veteran web site at and follow the links to encourage their congressmen to support the bill. Kansas delegates all are on board in their support, but it would be especially helpful to have support from other states.