Photo Credit: DVIDS, Photo By Daniel Gaffney

In the New Mexico desert in 1945, the world forever changed when the U.S. harnessed the force that holds an atom together. Then, it was blown to smithereens.

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, veterans who encountered radiation in service have been diagnosed with various diseases. But unlike those exposed to Agent Orange or burn pits, these “atomic veterans” must prove their exposure before receiving their earned Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits.

One piece of DAV-championed legislation would lift that unjust burden.

H.R. 4566, the Providing Radiation Exposed Servicemembers Undisputed Medical Eligibility (PRESUME) Act, introduced by Rep. Dina Titus, would strip the VA’s practice of requiring specific radiation dose estimate levels before receiving VA benefits for radiation-linked illness.

Rep. Titus’ home state of Nevada was an epicenter of American military nuclear testing for over 40 years, with 1,032 tests on record.

“In the course of their service, like anyone on the battlefield, veterans at the Nevada Test Site put themselves in harm’s way in service to our country,” she said in a July statement unveiling the bill. “We cannot continue to leave any of them behind.”

“Our country’s atomic veterans helped win the peace during the Cold War, and they must be able to access the highest standard of care available,” Titus added.

In addition to requiring radiation estimates from the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, veterans must prove they were on-site at eligible locations worldwide. However, atomic veterans are currently held to a higher standard by the VA than civilians are of other government agencies.

The Department of Justice’s Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) program compensates individuals with specific diseases presumed to stem from nuclear tests, but it does not require claimants to prove causation or provide dose estimates.

The validity of radiation estimates currently required has been questioned over the years. A 1985 GAO report said Defense Department film badges, a now-obsolete device for monitoring personnel radiation exposure, were unreliable. VA used these defunct kits to adjudicate veterans’ radiation-related disability claims, the report said. However, an academic article published in 1965 said the badges had “numerous limitations in practical use.”

DAV Deputy National Legislative Director Shane Liermann called the service-connection process for radiation exposure “extremely cumbersome.”

“This unfair practice must be halted,” said Liermann. “DAV proudly supports the PRESUME Act as it would remove the barriers established by dated VA regulations and provide equity with other government programs. We encourage all DAV members to join our Commander’s Action Network and urge their lawmakers to pass this bill.”

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