An Air Force veteran from Nixa hopes to right what he says is an injustice dealt 55 years ago to a group of servicemen and women growing smaller as time ticks along.
A federal court ruled that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs must reexamine a policy preventing veterans suffering from certain types of cancers and illnesses during a Cold War operation called Broken Arrow in Spain from receiving any compensation.
Victor Skaar, 84, a veteran from Nixa who was exposed to radioactive material in Palomares, Spain, has been in a fight with the VA since 1982. He isn't as excited about the court ruling as he is about it receiving coverage in the Wall Street Journal.
"Even though we have a court case, I don't hold a whole lot of faith in winning in the court," Skaar said. "But I place a lot of confidence in the court of public opinion."
For Skaar, the recognition that members of the U.S. military were exposed to radioactive material in Spain has become more important than money. Simply put, he wants to right a wrong.
The veterans of Palomares, Skaar said, face similar obstacles to what Blue Water Navy veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War face.
"We're trying to gain some recognition. In '19, the Congress awarded the Blue Water sailors off Vietnam, they were rewarded with the presumptive test, if you will. As they've applied for their compensation," Skaar said. "We haven't gained that yet, we're too small of a group and we don't have any political clout."
In 1966, a U.S. B-52 bomber and a refueling aircraft collided over the city of Palomares, Spain and crashed. Four hydrogen bombs also fell to the ground, and though they did not detonate or explode, they left behind harmful, radioactive material.
Skaar and roughly 1,600 other American servicemen worked in Palomares for three and a half months to clean up the material. When the job was done, they had collected 5,400 steel barrels full of harmful dirt and rock. They did the job without adequate protective gear, Skaar told the Headliner News.
Radiation is what Skaar thinks caused problems for him later in his life, like leukopenia, skin cancer and prostate cancer, according to a complaint he filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals. 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.
Skaar, who was 29 years old at the time of Broken Arrow and reached the rank of chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, spent 62 days on the ground in Spain.
Skaar said plutonium was released throughout the area and, “if you inhale it, which we did, it is highly radioactive, highly hazardous.”
“When we were trained in medical disaster control — in all the training manuals when it talked about radiation and plutonium, it said there was no such thing as an insignificant amount of exposure to plutonium,” Skaar said. “Once it’s in your system, it will stay in your system 40, 50, 60 years.”
According to the court documents, the motion is for “all U.S. veterans who were present at the 1966 cleanup of plutonium dust at Palomares, Spain, and whose application for service-connected disability compensation based on exposure to ionizing radiation the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied or will deny.”
The motion says that the VA’s exclusion of Palomares as a radiation risk is based on “scientifically flawed methodology.”
Skaar said he hopes that the court case and any notoriety he gains from it can help his fellow veterans, present and future, in dealing with the VA.
In addition to the Wall Street Journal coverage, there is some renewed interest in the Palomares cleanup and in Skaar's story, at home and abroad.
"The Spanish are doing news pieces and documentary releases, because it was in their country 55 years ago," Skaar said. "My story is under contract with a movie producer, a legitimate movie production company, for five years."
In the new decision, the court ruled that the VA broke a federal law requiring that the assessment of military veterans' exposure to radiation be based on sound science.