Memorial Day is a solemn day set aside to remember the courage and sacrifice of the men and women that served the United States. Gary Thornton of Leon, Kan., has been working hard to bring honor and remembrance to the nation’s forgotten veterans.

Memorial Day is a solemn day set aside to remember the courage and sacrifice of the men and women that served the United States.


Gary Thornton of Leon, Kan., has been working hard to bring honor and remembrance to the nation’s forgotten veterans.


His mission is limited specifically to saying “Thank You” in an appropriate way to those military personnel that participated in 235 atmospheric and underwater atomic tests conducted between 1945 and 1963. They are known as “Atomic Veterans.”


Thornton, a 26-year veteran of the United States Navy and a Vietnam veteran, was assigned duty aboard the U.S.S. Engage, a minesweeper. The minesweeper provided combat radar patrol services and usually stayed in shallow waters close to the shoreline. 


Thornton and several of his fellow crew members were “volunteered” to participate in a top secret project that would make history. They were also instructed to sign a document stating that whatever they witnessed, saw, or heard would not be revealed for 20 years under the penalty of execution and/or life imprisonment.


Thornton had read articles on the atomic bombs dropped in Japan but knew very little about atomic testing. He witnessed eight detonations in 1962 off of Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.


For many of the participants it would take years before the effects of the radiation exposure would become apparent. The U.S. government remains reluctant to acknowledge the health problems created by the atomic tests, Thornton said.


“Thousands of veterans have died while they begged for medical help. The government has never admitted that subjecting them to atomic radiation causes all different kinds of cancer,” Thornton said.


In order to be compensated, a veteran must be certified by a VA doctor, which means the veteran must have proof of their assignment or participation within the federal statues recorded to qualify as an Atomic Veteran. Due to the Atomic Secrets Act, there were no entries made in the service jackets, medical records or orders of the Atomic Veterans, thus making it impossible to become “certified.”


The Atomic Secret Act was lifted in 1996 -- 51 years after being imposed -- and the veterans were allowed to verbally discuss their experiences.


“And because so much emphasis was put on the severity of breaking the 20-year imposed threat, there are many older survivors that are still afraid to say anything for the fear of being punished,” Thornton said.


In 2003, Thornton and Larry Halloran began working towards getting recognition for the Atomic Veterans.


In 2004, former State Rep. Everett Johnson of Augusta, an Atomic Veteran as well, helped get a resolution adopted to recognize and honor Kansas Atomic Veterans. This led to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius presenting a Certificate of Recognition to each known Atomic Veteran from Kansas.


A?day of celebration and honor was held in Topeka, but more than 50 percent of the Atomic Veterans were too ill or too old to attend the special event. Those that couldn’t attend received their certificates in the mail.


In 2007, the Kansas Legislature adopted resolution HCR 5018, introduced by Kansas Rep. Ed Trimmer of Winfield, and co-sponsored by Rep. David Crum of Augusta, encouraging the president and United States Congress to honor the nation’s Atomic Veterans with a special Atomic Veterans Service Medal. 


Also in 2007, U.S. Congressional representatives from Kansas, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Rep. Nancy Boyda, Rep. Dennis Moore and Rep. Jerry Moran introduced HR3471, the “Atomic Veterans Medal Act of 2007” in the U.S. House of Representatives. 


Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback introduced the sister bill S2218 in the U.S. Senate. The bills are in their third committee, and Thornton hopes they get passed before this 110th Congress finishes its second session.


“Without the support and voice of the people, all this work will go down the drain.  We just want everyone to be aware of the Atomic Veterans. We seek no apologies or justification of the testing. It is the strength and devotion to duty of our shipmates all who participated in the testing that we wish to see recognized. They deserve nothing less than an Atomic Test Service Medal in their honor,” Thornton said.


Augusta Gazette