Today marks the anniversary of the U.S.’s first detonation of a nuclear weapon conducted by the U.S. Army in the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico. While that in itself is significant, July 16th has also become a day to honor the nation’s atomic Veterans. So, what is an atomic Veteran?
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an atomic Veteran is defined as a Veteran who, as part of his/her military service:
- Participated in an above-ground nuclear test between 1945 and 1962;
- Was part of the U.S. military’s occupation forces in/around Hiroshima/Nagasaki before 1946; or
- Was held as a prisoner of war (POW) in/near Hiroshima/Nagasaki (certain cases).
The path for these Veterans has not been easy as many developed serious health conditions due to exposure to radiation. Because of the classified nature of nuclear operations, they also couldn’t seek medical care or disability compensation from the VA. It wasn’t until 1966 when Congress repealed the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Act that atomic Veterans could discuss their experiences and begin to apply for VA benefits. In 1979, the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) was formed to provide assistance to atomic Veterans.
In 1983, President Reagan declared July 16th as National Atomic Veterans Day as, “a day dedicated to those patriotic Americans who through their participation in these tests helped lead the United States to the forefront of technology in defense of our great Nation and the freedoms we as Americans hold so dear.” Reagan’s declaration, however, was just for July 16, 1983, not for each succeeding year. Additional action was not taken until 2015 when the state of Virginia adopted National Atomic Veterans Day for each year thereafter.
National Atomic Veterans Day was not officially declared for successive years until 2021 when President Biden signed legislation introduced by VA Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger recognizing atomic Veterans as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022. The White House proclamation for 2021 is quoted below:
Atomic Veterans served our Nation with distinction, but their service came at a great cost. Many developed health conditions due to radiation exposure, yet because they were not able to discuss the nature of their service, they were unable to seek medical care or disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for their illnesses. Decades later in 1996, the United States Congress repealed the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Act, allowing Atomic Veterans to tell their stories and file for benefits. By then, thousands of Atomic Veterans had died without their families knowing the true extent of their service.
Our Nation has one truly sacred obligation: to properly prepare and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return from service. As Commander in Chief, I am committed to fulfilling our obligation to the Atomic Veterans and their families, and ensuring that all of our Nation’s veterans have timely access to needed services, medical care, and benefits.
On this National Atomic Veterans Day, our country remembers the service and sacrifices of Atomic Veterans. Their heroism and patriotism will never be forgotten and we always honor their bravery and devotion to duty.A Proclamation on National Atomic Veterans Day, 2021, Issued July 15, 2021
There are approximately 195,000 atomic Veterans in the United States.
How to Observe National Atomic Veterans Day
- Show thanks
To show thanks to atomic Veterans for their sacrifice, you can spend some time writing letters or creating cards. By doing so, at least they will know that they are appreciated.
- Contact NAAV
The National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) is a non-profit organization. You can contact them for information, and you may want to make a donation or volunteer.
- Reach out to Veterans
If you know Veterans, it’s the best time to reach out to them. Remember to thank them for their service to the country. You may want to hear about their experiences during the nuclear tests and the atomic bombings. You can also personally offer some help in case they need it