This bill could compensate veterans exposed to radiation at a Nevada test range

The Tonopah Test Range is a classified spot in Nevada, operated by the Defense and Energy Departments. It was once the site for nuclear materials testing. Many veterans who worked at Tonopah in later years claim exposure to residual radiation has caused health problems. Now a bill from Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) would compensate these veterans.  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the man who did much of the research and documentation of the radiation effects. The bill is name after him: Air Force Veteran Dave Crete.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And just briefly, what did you do for the Air Force and when at the Tonopah Range?

Dave Crete So at Tonopah, at the base of Tonopah, I was Air Force security policeman, which basically I was a cop up there. We provided security, operational security for the F-117 Stealth fighter.

Tom Temin A lot of that work is classified to this day too, isn’t it?

Dave Crete Correct. To get there, you had to have a top secret security clearance. And the plane’s out, so we get to talk about it, which is pretty cool. It’s pretty cool the day you got to go home and tell your wife what you did.

Tom Temin Sure. And at that time, people were not aware of the history of what had happened at Tonopah.

Dave Crete Correct? We had no idea.

Tom Temin What had happened? And what was the downrange effect of that.

Dave Crete So Nevada, there’s an area of the range called NTS, Nevada Test Site, where it’s common knowledge that there were nuclear tests that took place 50’s up through 92. What wasn’t known is the amount of fallout that we had there, as well as right on the range there was testing that had taken place. There was a series of tests called Roller Coaster, which took place right around where we worked and slept.

Tom Temin These were explosions?

Dave Crete Correct. There was a series of tests that were conducted by the U.S. and British government to look at two things. One, what would the effects of a dirty bomb be? And what would be the effects of an accidental detonation? In other words, not a nuclear explosion, but an explosion that would spread nuclear material.

Tom Temin Right. So in some sense was a more concentrated type of testing than might have been from a bomb test.

Dave Crete Yeah, I don’t know all the science behind it. I’ve learned a lot. But according to the Department of Energy, it spread plutonium all over the place. Their words was, Tonopah test range is contaminated.

Tom Temin All right. And what about the health effects? How did you discover this? What got you on to this whole trail here?

Dave Crete The advent of Facebook allowed many of us to find one another. Because when you leave assignments like that, and based on the fact that it was in the 80’s, there were no cell phones and emails and things like that. So you lost touch. We all found one another through Facebook, and starting in about 2015, we started having reunions. We would all get together once a year and still do. At the first one, the conversation was, we’re all getting old. We all have these health problems. And the first thing that came up was these tumors. And most guys, tumors are benign, but we have a lot of them. And we started doing research on it, and found that the type of tumor we have has an occurrence rate of one in a thousand. Over half of us have these. That’s pretty simple math, that’s not normal. And we started going further and further and we found out that there’s a lot of health problems that a lot of our guys have already passed away, because of these health problems. Some people have no effect, and some of us have kids that were born with birth defects as a result of our exposure.

Tom Temin All right. And then there’s also the fact that the Clinton administration had issued an executive order compensating Energy Department employees at that site for radiation induced illnesses and bad effects, but not Defense Department people. Correct?

Dave Crete Correct. There was a bill called [Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA)]. There was another bill called [Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA)], and then there was an executive order by Bill Clinton. And all of those dealt with everybody that had to do with anything out there except for Department of Defense employees, military and contractors. We were all specifically exempted from the ability to receive benefit.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with David Crete. He’s a former member of the Air Force’s Security police squadron at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. And so then you were aware of this benefit for energy people. Then, thanks to the ability to connect with the high rate of incidence of radiation related disease among your own members from DoD. What’s the pathway from there to now a bill to compensate you and your colleagues?

Dave Crete When we started doing this research about two years ago, we found out that the civilians were, one, being compensated, they’d received the medical stuff. And in fact, they had already proven that what we believed to be true, they proved it true. Then we started going down the path. What do we have to do? Because our roadblock is DoD admits the airplane was there. They admit the units were there, but they don’t admit the people in the units. So if we go to file a claim, we can’t prove exposure, because they say we were never there. We’re still, to this day data mass. Our records are blank. And so we can’t prove any exposure, so we’re denied benefits.

Tom Temin Your records are blank because of the secret nature of the work there?

Dave Crete Correct.

Tom Temin I guess you’d call that a catch 22.

Dave Crete It’s exactly what it is. And that’s where our problem lies. And when we’ve gone to the Department of Defense before, went through the VA, because the VA then goes to the Department of Defense going, Hey, these folks are claiming exposure to ionizing radiation and whatever else, and they have cancers and kids have birth defects. And like I have scarred lungs. Department of Defense goes, not possible, they weren’t there.

Tom Temin But would not the VA treat you just as a veteran for whatever condition you might have anyway?

Dave Crete They treat us. I get treated for things, but you can’t get certain levels of benefit. There’s guys that can’t work, because of their disabilities, also can’t get VA disability as a result of it.

Tom Temin Because it was not service related in the eyes of the VA. Got it.

Dave Crete According to the Department of Defense, it wasn’t service related. But the coincidence is they have hundreds and hundreds of people that all lived in Vegas that were all data mass at the same time, with the exact same story. And Department of Defense says it’s a coincidence.

Tom Temin Yeah. So now you have a Congressman, Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), and you’re still in Nevada yourself, correct?

Dave Crete Correct. I live in Las Vegas.

Tom Temin All right. And what convinced him?

Dave Crete I showed him the evidence that I had procured through various sources, all of it public sources. And I went to him and I said, look, this is where we were. Here’s our base. It’s been acknowledged to be there. The bases that are on the Nevada test range have been acknowledged, and here’s Department of Energy report saying that doing a protest ridge is contaminated with plutonium.

Tom Temin I guess, I’m trying to find the bridge to where you were there and the people you know to be there. How can you prove it at this point? There must be a record that exists somewhere. It’s just not being released by the Defense Department.

Dave Crete Correct. And that’s what we have to get through. We have to get the Department of Defense to say, that we were there. The problem that the Department of Defense has in doing that is they have to admit that this place is, one, contaminated. And number two, they’re still sending people there.

Tom Temin Right. So it’s almost like the burn pit situation, as if they were still burning.

Dave Crete Correct. And they’re still sending people to take care of the burn pit.

Tom Temin And that’s become a presumed benefit, just like blue water napalm exposure, and a number of other things in recent years that have become presumed to be deserving of beneficiaries, because that’s what the law now says. Well, does the bill that is now before Congress, and gosh, knows what kind of a chance it’s going to have in the way Congress is now. Does that also require the Defense Department to identify people that were there?

Dave Crete Yes, that’s exactly what we’re asking, is for them to say, yes, that they were there. And then to provide benefit for not only the military member, but like my son. My first son has neurofibromatosis. He was born with a tumor problem, that’s a direct result of my exposure. And he grew up unable to get insurance. He has insurance now, but he’s been faced his entire life with significant issues as a result, just because of me.

Tom Temin An inherited problem almost, because of your exposure. But the bill specifically would cause DoD to give up those records.

Dave Crete The bill’s still in draft, but that’s exactly what it’s going to do. It’s going to request that they give up those records, it’s going to request the same benefit that the civilian DOE employees got for those family members that are affected. All we’re asking for is the VA, for a military member, to recognize that we were there and did it and we have exposure.

Tom Temin Got it. And do you have any sense of how many people are involved? The numbers?

Dave Crete Thousands. Several thousand people.

Tom Temin Because this was over decades.

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