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Speaker Johnson, hear the prayers of nuclear weapons testing victims. It’s time to act.

In World
June 04, 2024

The 20th century saw no shortage of patriotic Americans stepping up to serve our nation. We both know this well: As young men, we served in the U.S. military – Mr. Leslie Begay as a combat Marine in Vietnam, and Rep. James Moylan as a veteran of the Army. As a country, it is our solemn responsibility to support those who have made sacrifices on our behalf.

We should also honor many thousands of Americans who did not enlist yet also sacrificed for our national security.

These patriots of the Manhattan Project and Cold War were unknowingly poisoned by their own government in the creation of our nuclear arsenal, and they deserve our support. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which aims to address those harms, will expire Friday unless Congress acts immediately.

This is urgent: Congress has only a few working days left to act before RECA expires.

Leslie Begay was 21, had served in Vietnam as a Marine, when he started working in the U.S. uranium mines on the Navajo Nation in 1983. As the United States mined uranium and built and tested nuclear weapons, the government exposed countless service members and communities across the country to dangerous, often deadly levels of radiation without their knowledge or consent.

As we mined uranium and built and tested nuclear weapons that defended our country, we exposed countless service members and communities across the country to dangerous, often deadly levels of radiation without their knowledge or consent. In some cases, we’re only just learning the full extent of that harm, with impacted Americans succumbing to new cancers every day.

RECA was created in 1990 to provide an apology and a small reimbursement for critical medical care for some victims. It is a valuable program, but it has excluded far too many Americans who were harmed, and nearly 35 years later, it is still woefully inadequate despite years of studies and reports proving the need for improvement.

In Guam, for example, a 2005 report determined that residents during nuclear testing in the Pacific received substantial unwarranted radiation and should be eligible for RECA. Yet nearly 20 years later, they are still awaiting recognition and support.

Additionally, uranium workers are only eligible for RECA if they were employed through 1971, despite a flood of studies showing that they faced just as grave health impacts after that year. This means that patriotic Americans like Mr. Begay have been suffering for decades with no avenues for support.

Uranium miner lost both lungs due to radiation exposure

Mr. Leslie Begay, in wheelchair, and Republican Guam Rep. James Moylan, right, listen to Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., at a news conference about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) on May 16, 2024, at the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. Leslie Begay, in wheelchair, and Republican Guam Rep. James Moylan, right, listen to Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., at a news conference about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) on May 16, 2024, at the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. Begay was born and raised in the Navajo Nation. After serving in Vietnam, he came home and spent eight years mining the uranium that built our nuclear weapons. He was given a hard hat and no mask, was never told he was being poisoned, and he ended up losing both lungs due to radiation exposure. Given just a month to live, he received a double lung transplant. As he recovered, he decided to dedicate his remaining years to helping his people and improving RECA.

As lucky as he feels to have a new set of lungs, his health issues are far from over. With no cancer center or veterans’ hospital on the Navajo Nation, he had to move away from his wife and grandkids to live near a hospital in Mesa, Arizona, so that he could attend almost weekly medical appointments. He is on 22 medications that he’ll take for the rest of his life – and they don’t come cheap.

He has had to sell all his cattle to pay for these expenses, and sometimes he and his wife don’t know where the money will come from to cover his next medical bill. Even worse – he’s just had a biopsy because of a possible new cancer diagnosis.

Oppenheimer nuclear fallout still kills: Time is running out for American victims of nuclear tests. Congress must do what’s right.

The people of Guam and miners like Mr. Begay are far from alone.

Across the West, communities living downwind of nuclear testing – including those downwind of the very first nuclear test in New Mexico – were excluded from RECA seemingly arbitrarily.

Victims of illegally stored nuclear waste in Missouri have also suffered from devastating illnesses, with nowhere to turn.

US creation of nuclear arsenal sacrificed our own people

Rep. James Moylan, Guam’s delegate in the 118th Congress, is a lead sponsor of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2023.

Rep. James Moylan, Guam’s delegate in the 118th Congress, is a lead sponsor of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2023.

The United States asked its people for a great deal of sacrifice to win the Cold War – some willingly as part of their service and many thousands unknowingly.

We have a duty now to take care of everyone sickened by their own government in the creation of our nuclear arsenal. It’s long past time that Congress does its job and improves RECA so these patriotic Americans can get the recognition and help they so richly deserve.

Oscar honors ‘Oppenheimer,’ but what about Americans still suffering from nuke tests?

Some have called for a plain extension of RECA as is, but we know that would only be an extension of injustice. We must not blindly extend such an obviously flawed program, knowing that it would leave so many Americans behind.

On May 16, we stood together with dozens of advocates who had traveled to Washington, D.C., from across America to fight for RECA. They traveled on behalf of their loved ones – many of whom are sick and dying – and pleaded with Congress: Don’t let us go home without good news; don’t keep letting our people die.

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In March, armed with new information about the true scope of Americans harmed by our Cold War nuclear program, the Senate passed a bill with overwhelming bipartisan support to hugely improve RECA.

Now, that bill is sitting on House Speaker Mike Johnson’s desk waiting to be brought to a vote.

Speaker Johnson: Please hear our prayers. It’s time to finally support these patriots, harmed by their own government, and get them the justice they deserve.

Rep. James Moylan, Guam’s delegate in the 118th Congress, is a lead sponsor of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2023. He is an Army Veteran and a native of Guam from the village of Tumon.

Mr. Leslie Begay is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and a resident of Coyote Canyon, New Mexico. He is a post-1971 uranium miner, Vietnam War veteran and volunteer member of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee. He previously worked at Fort Wingate Army Depot. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Congress can help Americans harmed by Cold War nukes. Will they?

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