Legislation honoring atomic veterans awaits action by the House after its unanimous Senate passage. The bill, authored by Sen. Andrew Mathews (R-Milaca), designates July 16 as Atomic Veterans Day in Minnesota, recognizing the hundreds of thousands of United States veterans exposed to ionization radiation and contamination during their military service.
“It is a tremendous honor for me to have carried this bill, which recognizes a relatively small, but incredibly important, section of veterans that played a critical role in our nation’s security,” said Sen. Mathews. “These are men and women who were – often unknowingly – put in extremely dangerous situations, doing so in the service of their country. It is imperative that we do all we can to honor their sacrifices.”
Per the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV), atomic veterans include members of the U.S. Armed Forces who participated in nuclear weapons tests from July 1945 to October 1962, as well as veterans who were assigned to post-test duties such as decontamination and radiation removal, and those assigned to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the nuclear detonation. A second group, including those who participated in underground nuclear testing, technicians aboard nuclear-powered aircraft or submarines, and those involved with the Enewetak Atoll radiation cleanup projects, are also considered atomic veterans. Perhaps the least known atomic veteran is the approximately 70,000 veterans stationed in Japan and those performing humanitarian service associated with the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.
Despite there being over 250,000 veterans directly impacted by nuclear weapon technology between 1945 and 1963, fewer than a dozen states designate Atomic Veterans Day. It took until 1996 for Congress to pass legislation allowing veterans to publicly detail any military involvement in nuclear testing or receive service connected federal benefits.
“On behalf of the members of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, and the spouses and children of atomic veterans, we would like to thank Sen. Mathews, Sen. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), and Sen. Bruce Anderson (R-Buffalo) for spearheading this legislation,” said Keith Kiefer, national vice commander of NAAV and co-commander of the Minnesota state organization. “This legislation will help educate Americans on what constitutes an atomic veteran and the struggles they have faced, while bringing much-deserved, long-overdue recognition to atomic veterans and their families.”
“Each year, on July 16, the anniversary of the United States’ first atomic test, we will honor the legacy of these atomic veterans,” continued Sen. Mathews. “May we strive to embody the honor and bravery of our nation’s atomic veterans, and may we never forget their incredible sacrifice.”
Sen. Mathews is in his first term representing Senate District 15, which includes communities in Benton, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Sherburne, and Wright counties.