A federal appeals court heard arguments in the case of U.S. veterans who claim they were denied disability benefits after falling ill to radiation exposure. An 81-year-old Nixa man is a key player in the case.
Yale Law School students with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic in Connecticut represent Victor Skaar, a retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant. Skaar filed a request with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, challenging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ refusal to provide disability compensation to veterans exposed to ionizing radiation.
“The message is not about this veteran,” Skaar recently told the Headliner News, pointing to himself. “The message is why were 600, 700, 800—up to 1,600 veterans—totally igorned by the VA?”
The court will decide whether a class-action lawsuit can be filed against the Veterans Affairs Department for denying disability claims.
Cleaning up chaos
Radioactive plutonium was released near Palomares, Spain, in January 1966, after a U.S. B-52 bomber and a refueling aircraft collided and crashed. Four hydrogen bombs accidentally crashed to the ground, but did not explode or detonate.
Skaar was one of an estimated 1,600 American servicemen sent in to clean up the aftermath of the accident in Spain, and the radiative remains of the bombs. The job lasted 10 days, Skaar said, in which 5,400 steel barrels of harmful dirt and rock were collected.
The legal complaint explains Skaar’s involvement. Skarr, 29 at the time, was a medical disaster control technician in the Air Force. He was part of a team that collected urine samples from the airmen working at the site of the incident.
“He recalls that it was impossible to follow proper laboratory protocols in the team’s haste to respond to the disaster in difficult field conditions,” the complaint reads.
Skaar’s responsibilities also included using measuring radioactivity with an instrument called a PAC-1 on site of the cleanup.
“This instrument was the highest technology that the United States had to offer to detect radiation,” Skaar said.
The instrument had its issues, however, Skaar said. Designed to detect radiation over flat surfaces like paved asphalt, the (blank) faced accuracy difficulties over Spain’s rugged terrain. Still, it gave Skaar and the rest of the crew the best idea of the level of radiation surrounding them.
“This peaked out, pegged if you will, at one million counts per minute,” Skaar said. “There were rocks that would measure—that had been irradiated—punctured with enough energy to be radioactive themselves. It was scary.”
The men’s protection was scary, too. Skaar shared several photos with the Headliner depicting men in white coveralls and surgeon’s masks. Only a handful of the crew, he added, were privileged with respiratory masks.
“We did everything we could, given the circumstances, to protect public health, but the statement has been made, and I can’t dispute that, that they were not given adequate—we were not provided adequate treatment to provide 100 percent protection,” Skaar said.
Further, the men also did not have time to educate themselves regarding radiation’s dangers.
“Sure, they were concerned, but we had to do what we had to do,” Skaar said. “It was, ‘Just watch your hands and make sure you’re trying to not breath that stuff.”
Over 50 years later, Skaar believes many of his health complications, and possibly other veterans’, are due to the radiation exposure during the cleanup.
“Mr. Skaar has battled leukopenia, skin cancer, and prostate cancer since Palomares,” the complaint states.
But while the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes certain cancers being links to radiogenic conditions, it does not recognize the cleanup operations at Palomares as a “radiation-risk activity,” thereby stopping veterans from demonstrating the link between diseases and the Palomares cleanup.
“No one’s listening to us about it and taking our word for what happened,” Skaar said in a 2017 interview with the Headliner about the veterans who worked the Palomares site. “There’s no question about the fact we were there and no question about the fact we were exposed.”
In 1997, the doctors at the Cancer Institute diagnosed Skaar with leukopenia, which is a low white blood cell count.
The doctor “said it was caused by exposure to radiation,” Skaar said. “But the VA would not accept that.”
For now, Skaar and the rest of the veterans he’s fighting for are stuck in a waiting period following a Sept. 25 hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals of Veterans Claims.
Skaar further addressed the case, which he hopes will see additional action in the next three to four months. He knows it can go one of two ways.
“Hopefully, it won’t be remanded, because I already told my attorneys I’m not interested in going back to the VA system. The second thing is they may adjudicate, and that’s what we hope,” Skaar said. “I suspect that my particular claim, which brought us to that level, will be denied because of my age. …That’s okay with me, because I’m not into this thing for any kind of compensation, but I want out of this and what they want to focus on is this class action, and that’s why the court is really asking the VA … why won’t you accept this small group of veterans?”