May 26, 2017
AUGUSTA, ME – Today, U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) presented veteran Paul Laird of Otisfield with the Humanitarian Service Medal to recognize his work in 1977 cleaning up the Enewetak Atoll, one of several small islands in the Pacific Ocean where the United States conducted multiple nuclear weapons tests from 1948-1952. Mr. Laird never received his recognition, and Senator King’s office recently worked with the Department of the Army to help secure it.
Following the medal presentation, Senator King also announced his support for the Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act. The bipartisan legislation would designate veterans who participated in the nuclear cleanup of Enewetak Atoll as “radiation-exposed veterans,” and make them eligible to receive the same healthcare and benefits given to other service members who were involved in active nuclear tests.
“It’s a solemn promise we make to our veterans: you fought for us and now we will fight for you. But it’s too often a promise that goes unfilled, and it is incumbent upon us to right that wrong and ensure that every veteran is given both the recognition and the care that they earned and are due,” Senator King said. “Today, for Paul Laird, we have taken a step forward in fulfilling that promise, but there is more to be done – both for him and for veterans across Maine and America. On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank Paul for his service to our country, and I pledge to continue to fight for him and all Maine veterans to ensure that they receive the benefits they deserve.”
Senator King’s support for the bill comes after Mr. Laird and other “Atomic veterans” reached out to his office. Mr. Laird has fought cancer on three-separate occasions after his work in cleaning up the nuclear fallout on the Enewetak Atoll, where the then 20-year old bulldozer operator for the U.S. Army’s 84th Engineer Battalion scraped topsoil without being provided the proper safety equipment.
The United States conducted more than 40 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 on the Enewetak Atoll. The service members who participated in its nuclear cleanup between 1977 and 1980, like Mr. Laird, suffer from high rates of cancers due to their exposure to radiation and nuclear waste, but are currently unable to receive the same treatments and service-related disability presumptions that other “radiation-exposed veterans” receive. Mr. Laird has repeatedly applied for veterans’ benefits to help cover the costs of his treatment, but has been denied by Department of Veterans Affairs which argues that their cancers are not linked to their work on the island.
The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act would tackle this issue by extending key VA benefits to those who helped clean up the Marshall Islands, which remains partly uninhabitable due to high levels of radiation. The bipartisan bill was introduced earlier this year by Senators Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) and is also cosponsored by Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
The Humanitarian Service Medal awarded to Mr. Laird today honors personnel of the Armed Forces who have distinguished themselves by meritorious direct participation in a significant military act or operation of a humanitarian nature, or who have rendered a service to mankind.
~ To watch archived video of the medal presentation ceremony, click HERE ~
Following the medal ceremony, Senator King will travel to Clinton, Maine where he will visit Flood’s Dairy Farm to tour and learn about its operations. He will also discuss the PRIME Act, legislation he introduced yesterday with Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would make it easier for small farms and ranches to provide locally-produced meats to consumers.