When Alan Leeman first set foot on Runit Island, a former nuclear-bomb testing ground in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he felt an eerie feeling like nothing he had felt before.
“It was like looking at the moon. Barren,” the Mi-Wuk Village resident said.
The island is one of 40 that make up the Enewetak Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, where the United States conducted 43 nuclear tests between 1948 and 1958, including the first test of a hydrogen bomb.
Leeman said the sand beneath his feet felt crunchy, crystallized from the heat of the explosions. He saw the melted steel in the gigantic craters and thought to himself, “How could a blast do this?”
Thousands of American soldiers and contractors were sent to Enewetak from 1977 to 1980 as part of what the U.S. government billed as a humanitarian mission to clean up the islands.
They were promised medals that they never received. Many of them now suffer from debilitating and life-threatening diseases linked to radiation exposure. Some have died.
“We were doing a good deed, but come to find out we’re paying the cost for it,” Leeman said.
Leeman, 58, walks with a limp from breaking his left hip two years ago after falling from a standing position. His doctor told him his bones are as weak as those of a 90-year-old man.
The government didn’t pay for Leeman’s hip surgery, nor has it covered any of the other medical expenses for ailments he believes are a direct result of his time at Enewetak.
Hundreds of others who served on the radioactive islands during that time are also struggling to get proper medical care.
A report published by The New York Times in January stated that Congress passed a law in 1988 to provide medical care for all military personnel involved with the original atomic tests, but that doesn’t cover those who cleaned up the mess.
Leeman has written to congressmen, the president, and helped raise awareness through the media, but he’s still waiting for something to change.
“All we’re asking for is to be recognized and compensated for medical expenses,” Leeman said, before adding with a grin, “and we want our humanitarian medals.”
An unexpected tour
Leeman was 16 when he first enlisted for the Army.
He grew up in San Leandro and had what he described as a “great upbringing.” His father, Sanford, served in the Navy during World War II, part of what inspired Leeman’s own military service.
When he left in March 1976, Leeman was supposed to be stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for three years but was sent to Enewetak before the second was through.
He traveled to Enewetak as a concrete and asphalt equipment operator in the 84th Engineer Battalion, A Company.
The many rows of long gray buildings where the soldier slept on Lojwa Island conjured a bleak image.
“When I first got to Lojwa, I thought it was a concentration camp,” Leeman said.
Soldiers typically worked for 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, mostly without protective gear. Although there were yellow plastic hazard suits on the island, they were in short supply.
“They said we would have all the protective gear and equipment we needed,” Leeman said. “Once we got there, we realized there was no real protective gear and bad equipment.”
Leeman and many others usually worked in just shorts and boots. They would bathe in salt water that likely contained some level of radiation given the extent of the nuclear tests conducted just two decades earlier.
The experience wasn’t all bad, however.
“I did a lot of scuba diving while in the Marshall Islands,” Leeman said. “I’d play with all of the sharks and eels, and I’ve seen warships that were sunk there.”
He also picked up photography, purchasing a Canon 45mm camera that he used to shoot hundreds of photos of Enewetak. Several of his photos have been published in newspapers and magazines in recent years, including the recent New York Times story.
“That’s the best way I knew how to document my tour in Enewetak,” Leeman said. “Pictures don’t lie.”
Leeman returned to Hawaii in April 1978 and was evaluated by Army doctors who told him his radiation levels were so high that he should never have children. They said the other negative effects won’t kick in until he hit 50.
The commanding officer told him that he had the choice to stay or receive an honorable discharge because his enlistment contract had been breached when he was sent to Enewetak before his three years in Hawaii were up.
Leeman had planned for a lengthy career in the military, but his experience in Enewetak changed that.
“I would have gone to war and gladly taken a bullet for my country,” said Leeman, who proudly flies an American flag on the porch of his home. “I would serve my country again, but not under the conditions we had to go through.”
Life after Enewetak
After getting out of the military, Leeman went to work at print shop in Oakland owned by his brother, Gary.
Leeman followed his parents and uncle to Tuolumne County in 1986 and got a job working as an equipment operator for Sonora Mining Corporation.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Leeman said of the county. “It’s a struggle to find work, but I’ve always managed.”
The mine shut down in 1992 and Leeman was eligible for retraining, so he went to Oakland for six months and learned how to repair computers.
When Leeman came back to Tuolumne County, he started his own computer repair and handyman services. He would spend his free time golfing, hiking, skiing and fishing.
That all changed on June 5, 2015, when he fell and broke his left hip.
Bone density tests revealed that he had osteopenia, a condition in which the body doesn’t make new bone as quick as it absorbs old bone.
The doctor told Leeman he shouldn’t have a condition like that at his age and put him on a regimen of Vitamin D, but it only got worse.
A year later, Leeman was diagnosed with full-blown osteoporosis and was told that he had the bones of a 90-year-old man. He was told to go to the VA because there was nothing else they could do for him.
Leeman said that veterans who served in Enewetak are part of the VA’s priority group No. 6, which means they’re not eligible for compensation of service-connected conditions.
“Currently, you have to be dying of cancer to receive any treatment from the VA if you’re an atomic cleanup veteran,” Leeman said.
His honorable discharge forms also don’t show that he served in Enewetak. He believes the tour was omitted due to the classified nature of their mission.
The mission was declassified by the Freedom of Information Act in 1995.
Leeman’s working with Mother Lode Rep. Tom McClintock’s office to get his paperwork corrected, but has been told he has to wait until Dec. 20 for a congressional inquiry.
He depends on Social Security Disability after being forced to shutter his other businesses following his hip injury.
Several developments in the past two years have given Leeman hope that relief could be on the horizon.
The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act was introduced earlier this year in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and in the House by Rep. Grace Meng, D-Queens, New York, that would give the Enewetak Atoll veterans the same health care compensation as veterans of active nuclear testing.
Since being introduced in February, the legislation has gained 10 bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate and 117 in the House.
“We were told that the magic number of co-sponsors would be 100,” Leeman said.
Leeman was also encouraged by the gesture of Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal to Paul Laird, who participated in the Enewetak cleanup.
This year also saw the release of a self-published book on the Enewetak Atoll cleanup veterans by T.M. Fitzgerald called “From Service to Sacrifice,” which features one of Leeman’s pictures on the cover and a chapter dedicated to his story.
Leeman is also active in Facebook groups dedicated to Enewetak Atoll cleanup veterans, as well as the Atomic Cleanup Veterans website.
“It’s uplifted me,” Leeman said of the online community. “We give each other moral support.”
Other recent developments in the world are less encouraging for Leeman, especially those pertaining to nuclear weapons.
Leeman voted for President Donald Trump and thinks he’s done some good for veterans with the signing of the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act that provides funding for veterans to seek health care outside of the VA system.
However, Leeman said he’s nervous about the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s recent nuclear tests.
“If we dropped one now, the million who die instantly will be the lucky ones,” Leeman said.
Leeman has experienced first hand the long lasting and damaging fallout from nuclear weapons while he was in Enewetak Atoll, which is still uninhabitable.
“No country should have a weapon of mass destruction,” he said. “I’ve seen the destruction and what the fallout does to people with my own eyes.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.