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Pentagon is showing too-little concern for airmen exposed to radiation in 1966

In a seeming precursor to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine that left a large number of cleanup “volunteers” irreparably injured, U.S. airmen tasked with cleaning up a radiation disaster in a small Spanish village have endured decades of medical challenges.

The disregard shown for the lives of these servicemen, many now in their 70s and struggling with various types of cancer, is an outrage. It is difficult to believe that this reckless denial of responsibility is still going on, but a recent article in the New York Times made it clear that military officials continue to refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

The trouble dates back to a late winter night in 1966 when an Air Force B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs on a routine Cold War mission crashed after colliding with its refueling tanker along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Two of the bombs broke open and spilled deadly plutonium, contaminating a wide area.

The United States, as the article stated, wanted the accident cleaned up with a minimum of public notice. The work was done by airmen who were loaded onto buses and sent to the danger zone with little protective gear and little or no warning of the hazards they would face.

Frank B. Thompson was a 22-year-old trombone player in the Air Force. He spent days searching contaminated fields. He had no protective equipment or change of clothes. Now 72 with cancer in his liver, a lung and a kidney, Thompson is saddled with high medical expenses – $2,200 a month for treatment. Treatment would be free at a Veterans Affairs hospital if the Air Force recognized him as a victim of radiation. It doesn’t.

Then and now the Air Force flatly refuses to acknowledge his and others’ medical complaints were service-related, implausibly claiming that there was no harmful radiation at the crash site. Officials expect the public – and these men – to believe the danger of contamination was minimal and strict safety standards protected the 1,600 troops on cleanup duty.

From discarded urine samples from the cleanup crew, which would certainly have turned up evidence of plutonium absorption, to a rejected monitoring program that would have offered lifetime attention, to the Air Force’s claim in 2013 that medical testing “was not necessary” since troops had worn protective equipment, it is clear: these airmen were used as disposable equipment.

The notion that some 50 years later the Air Force continues this pattern of willful neglect is unconscionable.

Air Force officials should conduct a thorough, transparent investigation and release previous reports on the cleanup effort. The Cold War is over; it won’t compromise national security to disclose details of a nuclear accident a half-century ago.

These men deserve medical care for injuries suffered while honorably serving their country.