Eighty-four-year-old Tom Botchie of Ormond Beach, Florida never went to war, but the Air Force veteran still feels like he was part of history.
In 1958, Botchie was involved in dozens of atomic tests on the Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific as part of Operation Hardtack I. He serviced planes that checked the weather before each explosion. Sometimes, those same aircraft also flew through mushroom clouds to collect air samples.
Botchie, then 23, and his comrades would watch in awe from the island, maybe ten miles away.
"We were young kids, you know, you're out there saying, 'Wow look at what they're doing, look at this!'" he explained with a laugh before quieting.
"We had no concept and they never told us about the radiation or the after-effects or anything."
As he flipped through a scrapbook of old pictures and articles about his time in the military, Botchie pointed himself out in a photo of young men wearing khaki shorts, short-sleeve shirts and baseball caps.
"That was our protective clothing from the atomic bombs," he said.
Botchie said he covered his eyes during the initial blasts, but said men who peeked could see the bones inside their hands. He eventually turned around to watch and remembers feeling the shockwaves and brushing radioactive dust off his clothes.
At the end of his stay in the Pacific, Botchie received a certificate from his Air Force commander acknowledging he participated in the operation, and then he was told to forget about it for decades.
Honoring The 'Forgotten'
The so-called "atomic veterans" were sworn to secrecy about their operations until 1996, when the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Laws were repealed.
Many realized they suffered from similar health problems, including cancer, infertility, and nerve diseases. The Department of Veterans Affairs provides benefits to some whose diseases the government deems are linked to radiation exposure.
Botchie's heart problems don't qualify, but he's pushed for years as a state commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans to at least get service medals.
"There needed to be some recognition of those of us that were there, that did this for the country, but (were) forgotten," he said.
But the military isn't willing to give them medals.
"Establishing a medal to recognize members exposed to a non-combat hazardous service would be inconsistent with the Department's Military Decorations and Awards program," the Pentagon explained in an emailed statement.
Instead, the government is now acknowledging the atomic veterans in a different way. Congress required the Defense Secretary to issue certificates to eligible veterans or next of kin who request them. The certificates do not carry any other value or benefit.
The initiative was included in last year's defense spending bill, and applications were posted on the department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency website in June. A DTRA spokesperson said the certificates were delayed because of the vacancy in the Defense Secretary position, but now that Mark Esper has been sworn in, the agency expects to start mailing them soon.
"Through their Service to our great Nation, atomic veterans have helped ensure the continued prosperity and freedom of the United States of America," reads the department's statement. "The Atomic Veterans Service Certificate appropriately honors those veterans whose were exposed to radiation as a result of service associated with our Nation's nuclear weapons program."
A 'Runner-up' Prize
Tom Botchie said he's already applied for his certificate. He said he still supports the National Association of Atomic Veterans' efforts to get a service medal, but said the gesture of a certificate is enough for now.
Other veterans and advocates are disappointed they will receive only a piece of paper.
Army widow Judith Frederich called the certificates an "insult" to atomic veterans like her husband Walter, who was involved in nuclear tests in Nevada in 1955 during Operation Teapot.
Walter Frederich, Jr. maintained communications lines during the tests. His wife said he and his comrades hid in trenches a few miles from the explosions, then ran out to ground zero to assess the damage to the wires.
The Army veteran died in 2017 after battling radiation-related skin cancers and a nerve disease for decades.
"A medal is something special, and the atomic veterans are a special class," Judith Frederich said. "They gave their lives for this county, and they are still giving their lives for this country just like anybody who goes to Afghanistan, Vietnam or Korea and gets shot."
Congressman Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, inserted language into this year's House defense spending bill to create an Atomic Veterans Service Medal. There is no language in the Senate version to create one.
"A certificate is not a medal," said McGovern, who has spent years pushing the legislation. "The bottom line is if we are respecting the service of our atomic veterans and we're grateful for their service, they deserve not a runner-up prize, they deserve a medal like we have provided to many other veterans who have served our country."
Precedent For A Medal, Just Not Here
Canada, Russia, China, Australia, and New Zealand all have created medals for their atomic veterans. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association is working to get one created in the U.K.
But this is not the first time non-wartime veterans in the U.S. have lost a similar fight. People who served during the Cold-War era also pushed for a service medal but got certificates.
Fred Borch is a retired Army colonel who teaches at the Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School and writes about military decorations.
He said there are a few cases where the military issues medals for "non-combat hazardous service," such as the Good Conduct Medal, the Humanitarian Service Medal, and the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.
But Borch pointed out that those are medals active-duty service members still earn. He said it doesn't necessarily make sense for the military to establish a new medal which no one currently serving could receive.
"There's only so much money to go around, and if I'm trying to take care of my people who are active now and motivate them, then my policy needs to be focused on the present and the future," Borch said.
Still, Judith Frederich is holding out hope she will get a medal for her husband one day, although she said he was so fed up with his "paperwork nightmare" getting a portion of his health care covered by the VA, that by the time he died, he had no interest in an award.
"Let's just say he thought it was too little too late," she said. "I feel a little differently about it."
Sitting at her Ft. Lauderdale kitchen table, she clutched a letter her husband wrote to the government in 1984 as he fought for compensation. It's signed, "Yours Truly, Guinea Pig."
"He was getting bitter at the stage," she said. "He was just very bitter and angry toward the government, the military, about how they were treated."
Frederich said she wants the medal to help her grandkids remember her husband's service and sacrifice.
She said she won't apply for a certificate.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2019 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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