SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — On Christmas Eve, Victor Skaar mailed a stack of letters to Air Force veterans he had served with in Palomares, Spain, scrawling a simple headline at the top of each one: “Great News!”

Skaar, a retired chief master sergeant, was one of 1,600 troops scrambled by the U.S. Air Force in 1966 to clean up a classified nuclear disaster by collecting debris and shoveling up plutonium-laced soil. Many were later stricken with cancer and other ailments, and tried without success to get the federal government to take responsibility and pay for their medical care.

He wanted to spread the word about an encouraging development: A lawsuit he had filed against the Department of Veterans Affairs had been certified as a class action, meaning that there was finally a chance to set the plutonium case straight, not just for him but for everyone who was there.

But his letters soon began trickling back to him: Undeliverable. No forwarding address. One brought a reply from a widow. Each one in his mailbox made his heart sink.

“For many of them, it’s too late,” he said of his comrades. “They’re gone.”

Class-action

As one of the first cases ever granted class-action status by the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the Skaar lawsuit represents a major step forward for veterans with long-term health issues linked to toxic exposure in the service.

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Until now, even in situations where thousands of troops were exposed to hazards like radioactive fallout, burn pits or Agent Orange and then faced similar problems afterward, each service member has generally had to grapple with the vast military and veterans’ bureaucracies alone.

“It’s a huge difference, and will only make it easier for veterans,” Bart Stichman, director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, said of the ruling. His organization is a nonprofit group that helps veterans pursue claims.

Skaar, 83, learned during his Air Force exit physical in 1982 that his white blood cell count was way off. He has been fighting ever since to get the military to acknowledge his condition as service related.

“First they told me there were no records, which I knew was a lie because I helped make them,” he said as he sorted through brittle and yellowing documents in his home office outside Springfield. On the wall was tacked a hand-drawn map he had used in the cleanup, marked with high radiation readings he had jotted in black ink. “Then they told me I had been exposed, but the levels were so low that it didn’t matter,” he said.

In a statement this month, the Air Force maintained its assessment that the Palomares troops had not suffered harmful exposure to radiation.

A veterans’ legal services clinic at Yale Law School helped Skaar pursue his lawsuit. The clinic, which is run by students, has a track record of winning precedent-setting victories in court.

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The decision to try for class-action status was a “no-brainer,” said Meghan Brooks, a clinic member who has since graduated. “The bunk science the Air Force was using was not just harming Mr. Skaar, but all the other Palomares veterans,” she said. “Mr. Skaar really wanted to fight on behalf of others.”

Even so, each letter returned to Skaar was a reminder that the wheels of justice can grind so agonizingly slowly that by the time they churn out a resolution, many who needed relief are gone.

The disaster

The Palomares disaster occurred on Jan. 17, 1966, when an American B-52 bomber on a Cold War patrol exploded during a midair refueling accident, sending four hydrogen bombs hurtling toward the ground. They were not armed, so there was no nuclear detonation, but the conventional explosives in two of the bombs blew up on impact, scattering pulverized plutonium over a patchwork of farm fields and stucco houses.

Plutonium is extremely toxic, but it often acts slowly. The alpha-particle radiation it gives off travels only a few inches and would not penetrate skin. But inhaled plutonium dust can lodge in the lungs and steadily irradiate surrounding tissue, gradually inflicting damage that can cause cancer and other ailments, sometimes decades later. A single microgram absorbed in the body is enough to be harmful; according to declassified Atomic Energy Commission reports, the bombs that blew apart at Palomares contained more than 3 billion micrograms.

The Air Force sought to clean up the disaster quickly but quietly. It threw together a response crew made up of low-ranking airmen with no special training — cooks, grocery clerks, even musicians from an Air Force band — and rushed them to the scene. Wearing nothing more protective than cotton coveralls and sometimes a paper dust mask, they cut down contaminated crops, scooped up contaminated soil, and packed the material in 5,300 steel barrels that were shipped back to the United States to be buried in a secure nuclear waste storage site in South Carolina.

Officials assured the public at the time that everything was fine, claiming that only one of the bombs had “cracked” (in fact, two had been blown up), and that only a “small amount of basically harmless radiation” had been released. But documents that have since been declassified showed that Defense Nuclear Agency experts knew there was considerable risk.

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Veterans of the cleanup who filed claims were blocked by a bureaucratic Catch-22. There was so much plutonium floating around during the cleanup that it kept the Air Force from getting accurate contamination readings, and most of the collected data was discarded. But the Air Force went on to conclude that since it did not have readings showing otherwise, none of the troops were exposed to damaging levels of radiation. Based on that assertion, the Department of Veterans Affairs has consistently denied nearly every claim related to Palomares.

The consequences

In 2016, dozens of veterans described the cleanup and the health problems they had afterward to The New York Times. Many of them have since died of cancer or related illnesses.

Nolan Watson, who slept by one of the bomb craters the night after the blast, had bone and joint problems for the rest of his life, along with multiple cancers. He died in 2017.

Arthur Kindler, a supply clerk who got so covered in plutonium-laced dust a few days after the blast that the Air Force took his clothes and made him scrub in the ocean, developed testicular cancer in 1970, and later had three bouts of cancer of the lymph nodes. He died in 2017 from complications of cancer.

Frank B. Thompson was a 22-year-old trombone player who spent days searching contaminated fields, and later struggled for years with liver cancer. He died in 2018.

John H. Garman, a former security-forces airman who was one of the first on the scene and secured the area around one of the bomb craters, died of respiratory disease in 2019.

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It is impossible to definitively connect individual cancers to a single exposure to radiation. And no formal mortality study has been done to determine whether there has been an elevated incidence of disease among the Palomares veterans. All they know is what they have seen happen to their comrades and themselves.

“It’s a sad, sad thing,” said Janice Slone, who recently put her husband, Larry Slone, in hospice care. She said that Slone, who picked up bomb fragments at Palomares with his bare hands, watched friends die of cancer while he suffered for years with a progressive neurological disorder.

If Skaar’s suit is successful in forcing the government to recognize that the Palomares veterans were exposed to damaging radiation, many would be entitled to free health care. As it is, some of their families have drained their savings trying to pay for care. Janice Slone said her family had spent $35,000 in recent months to keep her husband in hospice.

“Larry was very proud of his service. But when you serve and then the Air Force lies about it …  There’s no other way to say it, it’s a betrayal.” — Janice Slone

“Larry was very proud of his service,” she said. “We have a flag up in his room. But when you serve and then the Air Force lies about it —” She paused, and began to cry. “There’s no other way to say it, it’s a betrayal.”

For decades, the Air Force has cited urine samples taken in the field in 1966 to support its claim that the cleanup troops were not harmed, even after its own analysis raised alarms about the data. Skaar was the health technician in charge of collecting the samples; he said conditions at the scene made it impossible to do the job according to protocol.

“There was no time,” he said. “We had to find all the bombs and do the cleanup — that took priority.”

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Plutonium in the air, on the equipment and on technicians’ hands probably contaminated at least some of the urine samples. When the test results came in alarmingly high, Air Force scientists attributed the readings to such contamination and discarded two-thirds of them, keeping only the lowest readings.

The doctor in charge of the testing, Lawrence T. Odland, said in a 2016 interview that the retained data was useless, and that the scientists had agreed that the cleanup troops should be monitored for health problems for life. But the registry he set up for them was almost immediately shut down. Odland died in 2019.

The Air Force said it stands by its conclusion, based in part on the urine tests, that no troops were exposed to harmful radiation at Palomares. It said the danger of contamination was minimal and that the troops were protected by strict safety measures.

The data was recently reviewed by Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist and professor emeritus at Princeton University. In an interview, he called the Air Force’s findings “completely arbitrary.”

“This stuff is not easy to get right, and in the past, when the government wasn’t sure, they just presumed everyone was exposed,” he said. “Here they’ve basically done the opposite.”

The question before the court in Skaar’s lawsuit is whether the government’s conclusion that the cleanup troops had no service-related radiation exposure was so arbitrary and capricious that it violates the law. Skaar knows the answer will come too late for many. He doesn’t plan to give up.

“I want to go to my grave knowing I’ve done the best I could,” he said.