“We were sent there and they knew we were guinea pigs,”
I could see through my arm. I could see through the head of the guy near me and could see his fillings
Canada’s atomic veterans fight for recognition
Published November 8, 2007 by Drew Anderson in Television
The federal government has ignored the plight of Canadian veterans dying from exposure to radiation caused by nuclear tests in Nevada in 1957, according to Time Bombs, a new documentary to be aired on Global television November 10.
According to Eric Ruelle, who directed and produced the documentary with Guylaine Maroist, the initial seed for the film was a small article written by two journalists in Montreal in 1957. That article, small on details, spoke of a top-secret mission in the States. It took the duo 10 years to track down the necessary sources and find a television network interested in the project.
That mission was named Operation Plumbbob, the largest nuclear testing project ever undertaken, involving thousands of American soldiers and a handful of unknowing Canadian volunteers. The soldiers were exposed to six nuclear blasts and then ordered to participate in war games amongst the fallout, to test their reactions to orders after the explosion.
Jim Huntley lived through those blasts and helped organize the Canadian Atomic Veterans Association in 1995 to help fight for recognition of the veterans. “We were sent there and they knew we were guinea pigs,” says Huntley, who bristles with anger at the treatment the veterans have received from the government. “We flew in helicopters through that cloud.”
Huntley is leading the charge in the association’s fight against the government, a task bestowed on him thanks in part to his good health. Of 40 soldiers sent to Nevada in the summer of 1957, 22 or more are dead, and the survivors are riddled with cancer and arthritis. Jim is the healthiest surviving member of the unit.
The task has proven difficult. The group has been denied, ignored and shuffled through the storied Canadian bureaucracy, stymied at every turn and lied to by political officials. After years of trying to get information and compensation, the association was finally promised a package by former defence minister Gordon O’Connor, according to Huntley, but the deadline for that package has come and gone without a word.
“There’s no going back. They lied to us. The minister of defence lied to us. He came here in July and told us we were getting a package on the 15th of September. We have nothing, not even a phone call,” says Huntley after a screening of the documentary in Calgary. He says the government is now trying to send the group back to square one. “They told us they’ve never heard of us. I said to the secretary, ‘We’ve talked to you for a year and a half. You don’t know who we are?’” says Huntley.
Anger is pervasive amongst those still alive. The flashes of light, the shockwaves and the dust from the explosions remain seared in their memories. “I get angry and I get more angry… I’m ashamed,” says Bob Henderson, a veteran of the tests, clutching an oxygen tank that resembles a violin case. Most of the participants that he was acquainted with, he says, served in the military long-term. “They served their country with pride, with dignity and most of all with honour. What the hell has the government done for us? Nothing. They’ve tried to sweep us away.”
Henderson echoes a disturbing conclusion shared amongst the survivors: that the government is waiting for all of them to succumb to the radiation they ingested 50 years ago. “They’re holding back because they know we’re falling,” he says wearily.
In 1992, the American government finally admitted its culpability for exposing soldiers to nuclear blasts and awarded compensation. “They finally admitted that it was a human experiment, it’s written in black-and-white — a human experiment. They really wanted to see how they would react in a nuclear war. So they would say to the soldiers, ‘don’t worry about radiation, it’s OK, Mother Nature will take care of you,’” says Ruelle. “I’m now very ashamed of my government, I’m now very ashamed of my country.”
Ruelle and Maroist are not letting go of the story, or the veterans they have befriended while filming Time Bombs, and have pledged to continue fighting for them after the release of the film. “We’ve made a commitment to ourselves… we have a moral commitment to ourselves and to the guys, we cannot let them go,” says Ruelle. “We need to take this to the end, because if we don’t, we don’t succeed. Success is not having everybody clap at the show and everybody say ‘hey, great show.’ No, the success is having the government acknowledge and compensate those guys.”