Lawmakers fight for aspiring 'Atomic Veterans'

Jeff Fortin, 58, of Post Falls, wants the government to help with his health care after radiation exposure he suffered cleaning up atomic test sites in the South Pacific.
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More members of Congress are pledging their support for a group of U.S. veterans who are on the quest to be classified as “Atomic Veterans.”

The federal government acknowledges service members exposed to radiation during nuclear testing in the 1940’s and 1950’s have high incidents of cancer and other medical problems related to their service.

As a result, they are provided extended benefits and compensation.

WATCH: Post Falls man wants to be ‘Atomic Veteran’

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A group of service members came along in the late 1970’s, decades after nuclear testing in the tropical Enewetak Atoll, whose jobs were to clean up radioactive debris left behind.

Many of these veterans said they are suffering unusually high rates of cancer and other health problems as a result of their exposure to radioactive waste.

“We got a humanitarian service award for serving out there, we made some good friendships and we helped foreign people get their land back. But at what cost? Lives. Health issues,” said Enewetak Veteran Jeff Fortin.

These veterans are not recognized by the government as Atomic Veterans, so they are not automatically eligible for expanded benefits.

Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai introduced a bill to finally get the Enewetak veterans the coverage he believes they need.

“It’s incredible the amount of disabilities and cancers and other medical challenges that these veterans are getting now and have gotten,” said Takai.

KREM 2 On Your Side aired an earlier story on the Enewatak veterans and since then, Fortin has sent the story to every member of Congress and beyond. He said he believes the effort is paying off.

On March 6, 11 members of Congress signed on to co-sponsor the bill. That brings the total to 29 co-sponsors, 24 democrats and five republics. But, the bill is still in need of more support.

Congressman Takai said he believes it is clear these veterans should be acknowledged with increased benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I’m very proud, I think we all are, to be Americans. And one of the reasons why I am proud is that I believe we take the best care of our veterans. We do, but having said that we still have a lot of challenges in the VA,” said Takai.