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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Gary Pulis believes the time he spent in the Pacific cleaning up radioactive soil has poisoned his health.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette A photo from an Army handbook owned by Gary Pulis shows how the cleanup crew members were supposed to dress while working at Enewetak Atoll and the hat he wore while on that detail.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 7:16 pm

Stay in paradise costs Army vet

Rosa Salter Rodriguez The Journal Gazette

Gary Pulis recalls when he first arrived on the island of Lojwa in the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands in April 1979. As a 19-year-old volunteer member of the U.S. Army, he was stunned at the beauty.

"Picture the most beautiful tropical paradise you’ve ever seen – a beautiful lagoon on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, and the sound of waves crashing in. A beautiful place," he says.

Pulis, now a resident of Auburn, has some memories of the six months he spent there that still make him laugh – how he and his buddies used to compete at catching baby sharks in the lagoon, with the man catching the fewest doomed to buy the beer that night.

"See this," he says with a smile, pointing to a scar on his left forearm. "That’s from a shark."

But Pulis, 55, has other, less pleasant souvenirs. A chronic cough, which he says started within six months of leaving the islands and now interrupts his speech every few sentences. Odd skin lesions, itchy and pus-filled, that leave scars and pop up on his scalp, his arms, legs, chest and back.

"Everywhere except for what was covered by my shorts," he says. "That was what we wore most of the time. Shorts and combat boots."

Pulis believes both health problems, plus others, are service-connected because his job was to clean up after one of the darker chapters in American military history.

Beginning in 1946, the U.S. military began testing nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, a practice that continued through the hottest years of the Cold War.

The detonations included early tests on Bikini Atoll; the detonation of Ivy Mike, the world’s first hydrogen bomb, on Enewetak Atoll in 1954 and 1956’s Bikini Atoll explosion of Castle Bravo, the world’s largest thermonuclear device and about 1,000 times stronger than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1958, the Cactus device was exploded, leaving a 350-foot wide blast crater on Runit Island.

All left radioactive fallout and other contamination – so much that the U.S. government evacuated some Marshall Islanders prior to the testing. Natives sued in 1962 to be compensated for losing their homeland or have it returned, so in 1977, in preparation for a hand-off, the federal government turned to the military to clean up.

That’s why Pulis ended up chasing sharks as part of the 84th Engineers, one of about 8,000 men who worked on the cleanup between 1977 and 1980. Survivors now refer to themselves as Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Veterans.

And, on Monday, as the nation commemorates the sacrifices of those who have served in the armed forces, Pulis says cleanup veterans find their service neglected.


‘Was a crock’


Shortly after his arrival on Lojwa, Pulis says, the GIs were put to work digging up the tens of thousands of cubic meters of soil on several small islands using bulldozers and backhoes, graders, bucket loaders, dump trucks, jackhammers and even shovels and wheelbarrows.

"We worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week," he recalls. The men knew the nuclear tests had occurred, but were told that "the radiation there was the same as the background radiation in Denver," he says. "Which, we found out later, was a crock."

The military had decided cleanup duty would be a temporary rotation lasting six months. Nonetheless, while there, the men were exposed to ionizing radiation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"Some of the radiation there has a half-life of 24,000 years, if you’re talking plutonium-239," he says, referring to the amount of time it takes for 50 percent of the radioactivity to decay. "So, it was as ‘hot’ when we were over there working, basically, as the day it went off."

Every time the men moved earth, "We were breathing in all the dust we were raising," Pulis says. The men would go home to sleep in a bunkhouse whose concrete had been mixed with the islands’ contaminated beach sand. They scuba-dived, swam and snorkeled in ocean water subjected to fallout, he says, and ate fresh fish from those waters.

"We had Samoan cooks, and everything we got off the reef – sea urchins, shellfish, other little fish – they knew how to prepare it. I ate some of the most exotic seafood I ever ate in my life! I ate octopus. I had shark. And now, we find out the reef was contaminated."

One job to which Pulis was assigned involved cleaning up on Enjebi, an island that saw testing of rocket propulsion systems. One failed in 1968, spilling 2,500 pounds of fuel, according to official testimony at a House subcommittee hearing in 2010.

Pulis believes that work exposed him to beryllium, a cancer-causing toxin. He says his physician, Dr. Mark Souder of Auburn, recently began to investigate whether the element might play a role in some of the chronic respiratory symptoms. Souder’s office declined to comment.

Among the symptoms of chronic berylliosis are difficulty in breathing, recurrent dry cough, fatigue, chest and joint pain, night sweats, fever and lack of appetite, according to the Mayo Clinic’s fact sheet on the illness; Pulis says he has had them all.

He’s also had two bouts of cardiac problems not traced to blockages. He has never smoked, he says, although he uses chewing tobacco. He says he has not used alcohol or drugs for 32 years.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., responsible for veterans’ hospitals and health care, issued a statement when contacted last week about the veterans’ concerns saying the agency "wants to ensure that all veterans, including those who served in the Armed Forces during the 1970s and 1980s, have access to quality care. This includes a small group of veterans who served on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands."

The statement adds: "(T)he data accumulated over the three years of the project do not indicate any area or instance of concern over radiological safety. All doses, internal and external, were minimal."

Most of the time, workers piled soil and debris on a dock, where it was loaded into ships and taken to Runit, where it was mixed with slurry and dumped in the blast crater, Pulis says. Later in 1979, the crater would be covered with a concrete shield 3 feet thick.

Pulis says he began to question the safety of the mission when a camera crew from CBS’ "60 Minutes," with the late correspondent Ed Bradley, showed up. He remembers they were closely supervised by the brass, and the resulting segment, "Enewetak Revisited," still online on YouTube, showed workers in masks and yellow, full-body Hazmat suits.

The men called them "banana suits," because "they made you look like a big banana," Pulis says. And they were "hot as blazes" on a tropical island, where temperatures routinely rose to more than 100 degrees.

But he continued to do his job, and do it well, according to his supervisors, who recommended him for promotion to noncommissioned officer.

But the conditions under which he worked bore scant resemblance to the TV pictures, he says. A black-and-white photo he has kept shows him and his best friend, both shirtless, in front of a towering dump truck.

He posted it as his profile picture on Facebook a couple of years back.


Secrecy lifted


The man, Robert Simpson, and Pulis reconnected in late 2013 through Facebook, which a few months earlier had led Pulis to two other buddies, Richard Masculine and Frank Bolton. They started talking about their health issues and researching the history of the Marshall Islands tests and their service.

It was something that would not have been possible several years earlier. It wasn’t until 1996 that the federal government repealed secrecy laws that prohibited participants in nuclear development, testing and cleanup from disclosing what happened.

Men also were reluctant to talk because when they came home, in the immediate post-Vietnam War era, many found their reception less than gracious. Pulis, who came home in October 1979, recalls walking down the street in his uniform in California and being "spat on" and "called a baby-killer." The cleanup project ended in 1980, and Pulis left the military in October of that year.

On July 4, 2012, Pulis, Masculine and Bolton started a membership-only Facebook group, the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project Vets, to seek out other men – as of last month, the group had been contacted by 210 of them. It’s not known, he says, how many of the 8,000 are still alive.

But, Pulis says, five members of the group have died since the group started, including Masculine, suffering from several kinds of cancer. He died the week before Thanksgiving in 2013.

They’ve died, the vets say, with scant help from the Veterans Administration or other veterans groups.

Cleanup vets are not included in the federal government’s definition of "atomic veteran," which covers people in the U.S. and abroad who were directly exposed to nuclear testing and provides a higher level of VA services and care. It will take an act of Congress to change that definition to include cleanup vets, Pulis says; in the meantime, "the VA’s hands are really tied."

A letter posted by one vet last month from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D.-Conn., and ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, outlines the situation. "At present, veterans who participated in the cleanup of radioactive materials on atolls in the Pacific are not presumed to have service-connected conditions related to radiation risk activities."

The cleanup workers don’t qualify for membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars because they didn’t serve during wartime, which Pulis points out and was confirmed by a national VFW spokesman. The American Legion has the same requirement for membership, says John Raughter, spokesman for the group in Indianapolis. However, he says, the legion is able to provide service and advocacy to the vets if asked.

Raughter says he’s aware of the problems of Enewetak vets through a recent media account, and he has interviewed atomic vets, whose numbers are dwindling now that it’s 70 years after the end of World War II.

"It’s chilling the lack of precautions when they were doing (the nuclear) testing in Nevada" that led to compensation for atomic veterans, he says. "These guys (in the Enewetak mission) were digging the dirt, disturbing soil."

While some native people have returned, much of the Enewetak Atoll, is uninhabitable, according to a 2005 congressional report.


Met skepticism


Pulis, a native of West Milford, New Jersey, who spent much of his childhood in Florida, decided to stay in California on leaving the service. He had met and married a woman while still in the Army.

That marriage ended in divorce after his ex-wife suffered two miscarriages of babies with deformities, says Pulis, who also had a daughter with the woman.

He came to Indiana about 12 years ago, after working in Illinois for several years and meeting his wife, Faye, a Kendallville native, online. Pulis works full time in transportation and maintenance for Northeastern Center in Kendallville.

Pulis recalls that when he first sought care from the VA in Santa Rosa around 1980, he was met with skepticism. But within the next month, he’s going for a full medical work-up at the VA in Fort Wayne.

He’s also written Indiana Sens. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, and Dan Coats, a Republican, about the plight of Enewetak vets, and continues monitoring the Facebook pages daily.

"I think they (the military) believed it was possible to do it (clean up the atoll), but when they put the plan into effect, they found out very quickly it wasn’t feasible," Pulis says.

"One of my friends put it best: ‘We were in combat. But we were shot with invisible bullets.’ "

rsalter@jg.net