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Long, Long Ago, on an Island Far, Far Away

BY Ron Hawkins
PUBLISHED May 09, 2018
Well, maybe it wasn't that long ago, but it seems a lot of water has passed over the dam since I worked on Amchitka Island, Alaska, in 1988, helping build a radar system to keep track of potential Russian missile launches directed at the free world.

Amchitka is a tiny little rock in the Aleutian chain of islands, stretching westward from southwestern Alaska, about a three-hour jet flight from Anchorage. It was used in the 1950s, 60s and 70s by the Department of Energy to test nuclear weapons. In fact, the largest U.S. underground test (Cannikin) was conducted on Amchitka in 1972.

Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s. Numerous workers previously assigned to Amchitka in association with the three nuclear tests have contracted a variety of cancers and other ailments. Topping the list of maladies: non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

As a result of continual prodding by labor unions, and other agencies advocating support for the ill workers (or in some cases, their estates), large government payouts up to $650,000 were made to compensate the desperately sick, or dead employees.

In 2011, I began feeling just completely worn out. The constant, hammering fatigue just would not go away despite numerous courses of medications prescribed by our primary care physician. Finally, in early 2012, lumps appeared in my neck, and my spouse demanded further testing, including three biopsies.

It was obviously non-Hodgkins lymphoma. To make a long, torturous story short, I completed chemo in the fall of 2012. After 13 months of remission, NHL reared its ugly head again and so I got to experience round two, with all the lovely side effects.

The illness caused me to retire early, due to my inability to successfully manage the large workforce I supervised on a daily basis. The loss of income resulted in the loss of our house (another story for another day), loss of my voice and loss of whatever self-esteem I may have had remaining. We were forced to move in with our son and his family and are just now beginning to recover both physically (if you ever really do) and financially from the throes of NHL.

I attempted to acquire similar compensation from the federal government as was received by many previous victims of Amchitka. Unfortunately, every request was denied because: (1) I was not specifically a federal worker, only a contractor employee, and (2) the radiation was deemed to have dissipated to safe levels by 1988.

Yet, when the Department of Energy and Labor sent a remediation team to the island in 2001, it was deemed hazardous enough that the workers received hazardous duty pay AND radiation suits.

I have about exhausted all avenues for compensation, and my spirit and physical energy are about depleted as well. I'm not in the practice of holding pity parties, but in this case, I believe I'm entitled as much as all the other sick, dead or dying employees who sacrificed their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today. Unfortunately, no government agency seems to agree.
Oh, BTW, the radar system we built was torn down less than two years after completion. Seems the Cold War ended and there was no need for the radar any longer.
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