Summertown, Tennessee, USA

Atomic Veterans

Robert H. Gilbreath

From May through August, 1956, Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert H. Gilbreath was subjected to radiation from 17 nuclear tests and their fallout. Stationed in radiologically contaminated areas in '55 and '56 for 27 days short of a full year, he was exposed to fallout from another 17 tests. The shots which he directly witnessed included Cherokee, the first airdrop of a thermonuclear weapon (H-bomb), and 5 other devices in the multimegaton range. The fallout included two exceptionally "dirty" experimental thermonuclear shots, Mike (10.4 MT) and Bravo (15 MT). Both caused widespread and long-lasting contamination in the Marshall Islands, especially in close proximity to the ground zero areas of Bikini and Eniwetok. Radioactive residue from both those tests is still measurable today.

Gilbreath was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia in August, 1981. The period between exposure and diagnosis was 25 years, matching the experience of leukemia among Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. High rates of leukemia have also been observed in Utah schoolchildren at distances of up to several hundred miles from the Nevada Test Site. Leukemia is a white blood cell imbalance, possibly caused by genetic damage in the blood-forming bone marrow. A correlation of deformities in the blood forming tissue of laboratory animals has been demonstrated at doses as low as 15 millirem (0.015 rem), which is three orders of magnitude less than is presently allowed for occupational radiation workers annually. A study of British nuclear workers found that radiation-induced leukemia afflicts one out of every 300 nuclear workers and their children, even though they normally receive only a small fraction of the allowed dose.

Gilbreath was exposed to gamma, beta, and alpha radiation from 34 nuclear tests. His dose was significantly greater than that of an occupational worker.

Federal law forbids servicemen, veterans, and their surviving dependents from suing the United States for wrongful injury and death in the line of duty. The only recourse is to the Veterans Administration ("V.A.") for disability compensation. V.A. law requires an assessment of "the size and nature of the radiation dose or doses" for any applicant alleging nuclear exposure. Despite repeated requests for an individual dose reconstruction by the Defense Nuclear Agency, no such work-up was performed for Robert Gilbreath. Instead, the Air Force provided a "generic" unit estimate of 4.417 rem whole body external gamma and 0.150 rem bone dose. This estimate was based entirely on other veterans' film badge records. The film badges of the period did not measure beta or alpha radiation and measured gamma only very poorly.

After a series of hearings and appeals, the Board of Veterans Appeals determined that "in the instant case, the veteran's slight radiation exposure, coupled with the date of the onset of his leukemia, renders it unlikely that his leukemia was, in reality, related to the radiation exposure in service." For the ensuing 5 years, the Natural Rights Center appealed through the V.A. system, but also pursued legislative relief from Congress.

On May 20, 1988, the Atomic Veterans Compensation Act provided presumptive service connection for veterans who had participated in a nuclear test and had developed one of thirteen diseases. Gilbreath's widow was not helped by this law.

On October 15, 1990, the House and Senate passed and sent to President Bush the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. As originally passed, the Act provided one-time compensation to people who lived for 2 or more years in areas of fallout in Nevada and for uranium miners, providing they met certain requirements for disease and lifestyle (non-smokers, non-coffee-drinkers, etc.). Atomic veterans were not affected.

The following week, the House and Senate separately attempted to amend the new legislation, only each version was different. On October 23, a conference committee reconciled a set of amendments which, among other things, added atomic veterans to the program. Under the 1990 law veterans could abandon their appeals at the V.A. and apply to the Justice Department for a one-time, lump sum award of $75,000.

It took us 4 years and perhaps the first test of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, before we won our appeal. Regrettably, Marie received less than a third of the amount which was allowed under law, because subsequent amendments have reduced the available award by offsetting any amounts paid by the government for retirement pensions, social security, veterans' benefits or other reasons. Robert's wife by a prior marriage had received over $50,000 in Social Security, and this was deducted from Marie's award.

With Gilbreath's family finally receiving compensation, this case was closed. From the time Marie asked for our assistance in 1985 until the check arrived in 1994, the case was a string of unremitting hearings, meetings, briefs and appeals. Complex cases like these fall beside the way every day, victims of an expensive, inaccessible legal system. This case was different, and the difference was the presence of the Natural Rights Center, which is to say, you.


Natural Rights Center
Attn: Albert Bates, Director
PO Box 90
Summertown, TN 38483-0090
Fax: 1-615-964-2200

Go to | Natural Rights Center | The Farm | Intentional Communities