Alan Leeman has waited 40 years for the day he would receive his much-deserved Humanitarian Service Medal from the U.S. Army.
That day finally came on Monday — albeit, rather unceremoniously.
Leeman, 59, said he drove the roughly half-mile from his home to the U.S. Post Office in Mi-Wuk Village to check his mail around noon and saw the outline of a small box inside a large white envelope addressed to him from the Army Review Boards Agency.
“What this medal means to me is it finally proves that I was there and did the mission,” he said. “It doesn’t cover the health problems, but it’s a recognition I deserved 40 years ago and didn’t receive.”
Leeman was one of thousands of soldiers in the late 1970s who were told they would receive the medal for being sent to clean-up radioactive waste at former nuclear testing sites in the Marshall Islands.
His story was profiled in The Union Democrat on Veterans Day last year.
Much of Leeman’s service was spent on Runit Island, one of 40 that make up the Enewetak Atoll portion of the Marshall Islands, where the United States conducted more than 40 nuclear tests from 1948 to 1958.
Many of the soldiers who were part of the clean-up effort weren’t given the proper protective gear and were exposed to high levels of radiation that have led to debilitating health problems later in life, including cancer and brittle bones, both of which are associated with radiation exposure.
Leeman was 56 years old when he fell and broke his left hip. He was diagnosed with full-blown osteoporosis the following year and told he had the bone density of a 90-year-old man. In October, he’s scheduled to undergo a procedure for skin cancer.
Throughout all of this time, Leeman and most others who served with him on Enewetak Atoll and sacrificed their health have never been eligible to receive coverage for service-connected conditions through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Now that they have recognized my humanitarian medal and service in Enewetak, will they recognize the cost I had to pay for it?” he asked. “If they could only open their eyes to the pain and suffering that our guys have been through, guys who have died and everything, that would be the big one.”
Leeman started the process to get his medal and honorable discharge forms corrected to recognize his service in Enewetak two years ago, after other veterans like him had done the same.
About four to five months after starting the process, Leeman said he reached out to see if Republican U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock could expedite the process.
McClintock made a congressional inquiry into Leeman’s case and sent him a letter in June with the response from the Army that stated it had a massive backlog of similar requests due to changes in discharging requirements and would get to Leeman within about three months.
“I know they have a big backlog, but why something takes close to two years is beyond me,” Leeman said. “There are other guys who have been trying for a year or more and haven’t got it. I told them just wait a little longer and hopefully you’ll get yours.”
Leeman has also managed to start receiving health coverage from the VA for his service-related conditions after hiring an attorney who specializes in military claims.
Bills were introduced in Congress while former President Barack Obama was in office that would have granted the same health coverage to Enewetak veterans as those who were there during the active nuclear testing.
However, the legislation has all but died much to Leeman’s dismay.
“As far as people in Congress coming out and talking about the Enewetak clean-up, nothing’s ever happened,” he said. “They still cover it up to this day.”
A portion of the 2019 federal appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump this year has a section that talks about Enewetak veterans and urges the government to study the connection between their health problems and exposure to radiation.
There have also been several recent news stories, documentaries and a recent book documenting the struggle of Enewetak veterans that gives Leeman some hope that the issue will receive more attention.
Leeman said he’s hoping that McClintock or someone will do something to formally award him the medal, because it could give him an opportunity to make more people aware.
“We have a long battle ahead, but at least word is getting out and people are getting recognized now,” he said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.