|Vietnam Veterans of America|
In the March/April 2020 issue of The VVA Veteran we reported on the decades-long quest for benefits by the veterans of the 1966 nuclear cleanup operation in Palomares, Spain. Our initial story closed on a high note: The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) had granted Palomares veterans “class status” in December 2019, a legal distinction enabling them to enjoy the increased leverage of working as a class rather than as individual claimants. This is the first time a group of veteran claimants has been certified as a class on a direct appeal from the VA benefits system.
More good news for this embattled group of veterans came on December 18 last year when the CAVC ordered the VA to “reexamine how it evaluates disability claims of veterans exposed to ionizing radiation in the 1966 nuclear cleanup at Palomares, Spain.”
The CAVC said that the VA had “failed to fulfill its legal responsibility to determine whether the method it uses to assess Palomares veterans’ radiation exposure is scientifically sound.” The Court’s decision upheld the assertion made for many years by Palomares veterans that the Air Force and VA had denied benefits for radiation-linked illnesses to Palomares veterans based on demonstrably unsound science. The CAVC has ordered the VA to review and reassess all Palomares cases currently in the VA appeals process.
At the center of this story is retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. and VVA life member Victor Skaar, now 83. Skaar was a member of the Palomares cleanup team, one of the few deployed to Palomares for the entire 62-day operation. Skaar has been on what he calls “a long road” to establish that radioactive exposures at Palomares are linked to later disease, and that exposed veterans should receive all compensation and benefits they earned as a result of their nuclear cleanup work.
“I’m in the middle of this fight,” Skaar said, “but it’s not just about me. I’m working on behalf of the airmen who were arbitrarily assigned to the cleanup. They were sent into harm’s way but were never told that. They did their duty as ordered and to the best of their abilities. But when they got sick as a result of that duty, the Air Force and VA turned a blind eye.”
A TOXIC MIX
In January 1966 an Air Force B-52 long-range bomber in flight over the coast of Spain—armed with four hydrogen bombs—was involved in a midair collision with a refueling tanker. The B-52’s nuclear payload was released as both aircraft exploded. Three of the bombs landed in and around the village of Palomares.
Fail-safe technology prevented nuclear explosions, but the impact triggered conventional firing mechanisms that ruptured the bombs’ outer casings. A toxic mix of plutonium-laced gas, dust, and particulates spewed over a wide area.
Some 1,600 airmen were bused in from nearby bases to work the cleanup operation. All of them were exposed to dangerously elevated levels of radioactivity. Although it was well known that exposure to radioactivity could lead to cancers and other critical illnesses, no such information was shared with the airmen on the ground. Official records, including the medical records of the men who served on-site, were quickly classified.
When Vic Skaar retired from the Air Force in 1981 his exit physical revealed a low white blood cell count, dismissed at the time as an incidental finding not requiring follow-up. When Skaar was later turned down for blood donation due to the same low cell count, he became concerned. A friendly doctor ordered monthly blood monitoring, which confirmed that he had chronically low cell counts. When a routine chest X-ray revealed a spot on his lungs, Skaar suspected that radiation exposure at Palomares was the culprit.
Skaar’s first claim for VA medical benefits was denied after a two-year wait. His medical records were “unavailable,” according to the VA, and therefore exposure to radiation during his time at Palomares “could not be corroborated.”
Years of claims and appeals followed, all denied based on the Air Force’s contention that there were “no available records” to support Skaar’s service at Palomares.
At first Skaar didn’t know that other Palomares veterans were seeking benefits—and also being categorically denied.
“I personally created many of the official records at Palomares,” said Skaar, “so I knew they existed. Sealing the records was understandable at the time, but the time that there was any security risk in opening those records was long past.” It would ultimately require a Freedom of Information Act request submitted directly to the Secretary of the Air Force to secure the release of Skaar’s records.
The Palomares veterans’ campaign for compensation got a boost when declassified documents were reviewed as part of a 2016 New York Times investigation that confirmed that radiation levels measured in Palomares at the time of the accident were significantly elevated.
Another break came when students working with the Yale University Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic (VLSC) saw the Times report and contacted Skaar to propose moving the battle to the courts. After an initial attempt in March 2017 to secure all relevant records related to Palomares failed, the VLSC, joined by VVA and the VVA Connecticut State Council, filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut to compel the release of the records. Those records confirmed what Skaar had maintained for decades: The radiation dosing technique used by the Air Force was flawed. Yet it was this very technique that had served as the basis for decades of denied claims.
A GREAT DISSERVICE
“VVA applauds the decision of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, ordering the VA to reexamine claims of veterans exposed to ionizing radiation in the 1966 nuclear cleanup at Palomares, Spain,” said VVA National President John Rowan. “Thanks to the Court’s decision and the continuing advocacy of Victor Skaar and other class members, the VA must now justify its practice of arbitrarily dismissing the exceedingly high levels of radiation these veterans encountered and continue to suffer from.”
Many surviving Palomares veterans have radiation-linked illnesses requiring complex medical treatment. For those who have died from these conditions, families continue to seek benefits as well as recognition of their family members’ service. While they can now expect favorable, evidence-based VA decisions, Skaar said the long-standing intransigence of both the Air Force and the VA “have done a great disservice to the Palomares veterans.” For far too long, Skaar said, the “official position was that we Palomares vets simply did not exist.”
Thanks to the 2019 and 2020 Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims decisions, the existence of Palomares veterans is again fully recognized. These veterans enjoy class status and can anticipate that a reassessment of the Air Force’s flawed radiation metrics will support appropriate compensation and long-overdue medical benefits.
|The VVA Veteran® is a publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. ©All rights reserved.
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Silver Spring, MD 20910 | www.vva.org | contact us