Air Force veterans involved in 1966 nuclear cleanup sue Pentagon

New Haven — A Connecticut veterans group is among the plaintiffs suing the Pentagon on behalf of U.S. Air Force veterans who allege they suffer from health issues related to their cleanup of one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history.

The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut, seeks to compel the Pentagon to release service member records, medical records, environmental records and other information related to the Jan. 17, 1966, accident, in which an Air Force B-52 bomber and refueling plane collided, dropping four hydrogen bombs near Palomares, a small farming village on the Spanish coast. Two of the four dropped hydrogen bombs broke open, releasing plutonium over the Spanish countryside.

Vietnam Veterans of America, the Connecticut State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America and Air Force veteran Anthony D. Maloni, 72, of Agawam, Mass., are the plaintiffs in the suit.

Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, said by phone Tuesday afternoon that the department hadn't yet reviewed the suit but has a policy of not commenting on any pending or ongoing litigation.

For weeks, and in some cases months, 1,600 U.S. airmen participated in the cleanup effort, scouring contaminated fields wearing only thin surgical masks for protection, which were not required, according to the lawsuit.

The Air Force didn't provide them with other protective gear or warn them about the inherent dangers of their assignment, said Jacob Bennett, a law student intern with Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which is representing the plaintiffs.

Local villagers refused to eat any fruits and vegetables from the area, known for its agriculture, because they were told the produce was radioactive. So the airmen were directed to eat the fruits and vegetables to show the locals "that it was OK to eat this stuff," said John Garman, 75, of Pahrump, Nev., who was one of the first to respond to the crash.

At 35, Garman was diagnosed with bladder cancer. A few years later, he was diagnosed with emphysema. He said he smoked during his military career, but not a lot. Garman has submitted multiple claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs for radiation exposure, all of which have been denied. The Air Force and the VA, he said, won't even acknowledge that he and others were there.

"Yes, we were there. Yes, we were contaminated with plutonium radiations, and very possibly a lot of our medical issues come from that," Garman said.

The plaintiffs hope that if they are able to get records from the Pentagon, they will help veterans in filing benefits claims.

"Right now the government has not recognized Palomares as a radiation risk activity so our clients can't get access to service-connected disability benefits," said John Frawley, another law student intern working on the case with Bennett and law student intern Megan Brooks.

Veterans involved in the Palomares cleanup began making benefits claims related to their service there as far back as the 1970s, Frawley said, but added that it's possible claims were filed in the late 1960s.

Maloni, a plaintiff whose service-connected claims have been rejected, says he suffers from migraines, high blood pressure and heart problems related to his service at Palomares.

j.bergman@theday.com

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