Veterans groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in Connecticut on Tuesday suing the Defense Department in an effort to obtain disability benefits for airmen claiming to have been exposed to radiation after responding to a 1966 accident in Spain. The incident involved U.S. hydrogen bombs. There were 1,600 total airmen who responded, and many have since developed life-threatening illnesses.
On Jan. 17, 1966, a U.S. B-52 bomber and a refueling plane collided during a refueling operation in Palomares, Spain killing seven of the eleven total crew members. The crash resulted in the release of four U.S. hydrogen bombs. The plutonium-filled detonators on two went off, sending seven pounds of radioactive plutonium 239 into the sky.
Airmen were deployed to the site to recover weapons. In doing so, many were exposed to high levels of radiation for a period of a few days to several months. Many later developed cancer, blood disorders, heart and lung dysfunction and other illnesses as a result. However, those living with the aftereffects of exposure have been unable to secure disability benefits for their illnesses because the Defense Department has refused to release medical testing results and other information linking their ailments to the radiation.
The lawsuit was filed by Yale Law School students representing Vietnam Veterans of America. The veterans are seeking a court to order the release of records currently in the Defense Department’s possession under the federal Freedom of Information Act. These records include urine sample results and environmental testing data which they believe is helpful in determining whether their conditions were a result of their mission. While requests to obtain this information have been issued previously, the Defense Department has failed to comply.
“Palomares veterans have waited decades for even basic information about the medical risks that prolonged exposure to radioactive plutonium dust carries,” said Patti Dumin, president of the Connecticut State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “They cannot wait any longer. The Pentagon owes them answers.”
The lawsuit alleges the Air Force failed in protecting its airmen or warning them of possible harm. The Defense Department has historically maintained the airmen’s radiation exposure was too low to have triggered the diseases outlined in the lawsuit.
“There was no talk about radiation or plutonium or anything else,” said Frank B. Thompson, who was 22 years old when he was ordered to spend days searching the contaminated fields without a change of clothes. “They told us it was safe, and we were dumb enough, I guess, to believe them.”
Now 72, the airman has developed cancer in his liver, a lung, and a kidney. He pays $2,200 a month for treatment. If his ailments had been recognized as a result of active duty, these services would be free at any Veterans Affairs hospital.
Ronald R. Howell, 71, who recently had a brain tumor removed, is simply dumbfounded with the way the situation was handled. “First they denied I was even there, then they denied there was any radiation. I submit a claim, and they deny. I submit appeal, and they deny. Now I’m all out of appeals. “Pretty soon, we’ll all be dead and they will have succeeded at covering this whole thing up.”